Friday, December 22, 2006

Coexisting With Gopher Tortoises In Florida

On our 10 acres, there are approximately a dozen gopher tortoise burrow entrances. I'm not sure how many tortoises that translates into, but I'm guessing that at least 8 gophers live here.

The land is sandy and high, by Florida standards ... what we call a "hammock". The entire 10 acres is a patchwork of forest and open area due to the cows that grazed it before we bought it in 1986. There is an abundance of edge, which generally benefits all the critters, but the gophers require open areas. The sunny glades allow the grasses and forbs to grow in abundance. These are the gopher's food of choice.

Gophers are a protected species here in Florida. They have the misfortune to be gentle, harmless, slow, and delicious. They also require the same type of dry well drained land that developers crave for their cookie cutter jampacked housing blight.

While I protect my gophers today, I have to take some of the blame for their demise through my long, cultural and familial ties with Florida. My Minorcan ancestors developed a taste for gopher stew as soon as they arrived and all the way up through my teens, it was a common food in many St. Augustine households. I remember reading a Florida Wildlife magazine article once in which the state specifically mentioned the Minorcan population of St. Augustine and New Symrna as one factor in the gopher's decline.

For decades now, the gopher has had legal protection. There are still poachers of course, but that has dropped off the radar as a primary threat.

There is a respiratory disease that is killing them in certain areas. It came from the exotic tortoise pet trade and is an excellent reason for not moving gophers from one area to another ... plus you can get into legal trouble even if you think you are being a good samaritan.

The big threat to these gentle reptiles is the usual one here in Florida ... loss of habitat. The laws that protect gopher habitat, may in some cases be causing some gopher colonies to be wiped out. The reason for that is a chunk of prime development land with gophers on it is going to cost the developer time and money as they have to "mitigate" the loss of habitat.
In some cases, colonies of gophers have vanished mysteriously, prior to a housing project beginning the permitting process. No gophers, no problem.
Developers who plan and care (yes, I have to admit some exist) set aside some acreage for the gophers on large projects. On small acreage sites, they almost have to be relocated, which of course raises the risk of disease transmission.
Eventually, the question may become, "Where do we move them?"
They can't survive in most of Florida's habitats as they are too wet.
I now have 20 years of "coexisting with gophers" experience and I have to say nothing could be easier. In 20 years, we have accidently caused the death of 2 gophers that I know of. One was caught in a fence and a tiny baby was mortally wounded by a Lab pup.
On the plus side, our gopher colony has doubled in size and seems to be thriving. Mostly we never see each other, but I did have a big female lay her eggs in my garden as I weeded once. The nest was a success because I marked it to avoid plowing near it.
Most of the concessions I've made to coexist with the gophers are simple things like that. Simply noting where the gophers are, and then working around them. Currently, there is a new burrow right behind the canopy where I park my boat. So now I can't just pull through the canopy with the boat in tow. Instead, I have to back it in and out.
That seems like a small price to pay for coexistence.
One I'm happy to pay.
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Momadness said...

Hooray for nature and hooray for this post! (Damn developments)

Deb said...

There are amazingly few people who are willing to pay the small price you do to coexist with nature. On behalf of gopher tortoises everywhere, I thank you!

TheGatorGal said...

Nice entry, it made me think back a few years. Hope you don't mind if I share a story of my own.

Before gophers were so highly regulated, my dad rescued a gopher hatchling from the middle of 75. He brought it home to me, where it lived for the next 13 years. We even tried to release her across the street from my house in a good habitat, but she came back multiple times and finally built her burrow in my back yard. We let her be. If I knocked on the entrance to her burrow, she would come trotting out for some attention and romaine lettuce. When she was small her favorite snack was the crust of my PB&J sandwiches. She grew to the size of a large army helmet. Her and my dog were often found in the backyard sunning them selves in a prime sunny patch.

My dad's current property is similar to yours in habitat, down near Lake Weir and hosts a colony of four tortoises. I love watching them roam in the sun. He also stakes their burrows so they don't get mowed over.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Floridacracker said...

It seems so easy, most of it.

Thank you for visiting and for such a neat gopher tale! Thank your Dad also for protecting those gophers.

threecollie said...

In my lifetime (and I am not that ancient....really I am not, less than one dog year older than you if my calculations are right)wood turtles have vanished from our area woods. Just gone. Haven't seen a single one since I was small.
I liked them.
I miss them.
Glad you still have your gophers.

Hurricane Teen said...

ahhh FC, I know what you mean when it comes to gopher stew...I have never had it before, but my mom as many, many memories of it. Well the gophers will all be wiped out or located sparsely in protected areas soon...along with all the true Floridians. Thanks developers!

It hit 79 degrees here today, FC. Sure doesn't feel like Christmas. But a merry Christmas anyway!!!

Floridacracker said...

Yeah, I thought our litters were fairly close :)
Sorry about those wood turtles. That's a species we don't have here, but I've seen photos.

You know we are probably related down the Minorcan line.
You're right, it's a little warm for a white Christmas. Christmas day is starting to look cooler tho.
Fingers are crossed.

Wayne said...

I probably don't have to tell you how this post delights me. A nucleus for the preservation of a delicate species, right there in just the right place, couldn't be a better Christmas gift.