Secretive gopher tortoise has devoted fan club

SHELL BLUFF, Ga. — John Jensen is part of a devoted fan club working toward the recovery of Georgia’s official reptile.

Although unchanged in nature for millions of years, the threatened gopher tortoise – a shy, burrowing vegetarian – is vanishing across the Southeast because of humans’ encroachment.

“A big cause has been the loss of grassy woodlands they need to survive,” said Jensen, a senior biologist at Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.

Efforts are under way to restore the secretive species to its original range within the state-owned Yuchi Wildlife Management Area in Burke County.

“Part of what we’re doing is jump-starting a radio-telemetry study,” said Javan Bauder, a research ecologist with the Orianne Society, a conservation group.

On Monday, biologists gathered on a sandy hilltop where 16 tortoises live within in a 21/2-acre enclosure secured with a silt fence.

“They were put here last fall,” Bauder said. “We are planning to trap and recapture them, and 10 will get radio transmitters to track their movement.”

Eight of the Yuchi tract’s “resident” gopher tortoises will also be fitted with
transmitters – all part of a study to compare movement between translocated tortoises and those that were born there.

Two new tortoises – both juveniles – were added to the site Monday, and they were implanted with tiny tags no larger than a grain of rice. The numbered tags are readable electronically.

The 8,000-acre Yuchi tract is managed for public hunting, but portions of the site are gradually being restored to grassy woodlands suitable for fire-adaptive species – like the gopher tortoise – that thrive in habitat sculpted by periodic naturally occurring fires.

The long, deep burrows created by gopher tortoises also provide important habitat for other species, including the rare Eastern indigo snake, whose recovery is a major initiative of Bauder’s organization.

“Indigo snakes require tortoise burrows to winter in,” he said. “If there are no tortoise burrows, you usually will not have indigo snakes.”

In addition to being Georgia’s official reptile, the gopher tortoise is the largest land turtle on the continent, sometimes weighing 15 pounds or more.

“We really don’t know how old they can get,” Jensen said. “They always seem to outlive their researchers.”

The Yuchi project has other partners, including Georgia Power Co., which operates nearby Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant, and Morgan Corp., which provided some of the materials for tortoise enclosures.

GOPHER TORTOISES AND THEIR LONGLEAF PINE SAVANNA HABITAT

Longleaf pine forests are some of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems and provide a critical habitat for the gopher tortoise and other threatened and endangered species.

The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species and an indicator of longleaf pine ecosystem health.

Gopher tortoises depend on deep, well-drained soils and an open understory that provides sunny sites for nesting.

Their burrows provide vital habitat and shelter for many at-risk species. The gopher tortoise also aids in seed dispersal for several plant species.

Habitat destruction, degradation and human predation have greatly reduced the gopher tortoise populations.

More than 90 million acres of what is now the southeastern U.S. was once covered by longleaf pine savanna. Today, about 3.4 million acres remain.

More than 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate ownership.

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service

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