The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is a keystone species found in the southeastern United States that was listed as threatened in the western part of its range in 1987 and warranted for listing as threatened in the eastern part of its range in 2011, primarily due to the destruction and fragmentation of its native habitat. These findings prompted action among conservation groups to begin captive breeding or relocation programs to bolster population numbers and ensure that existing populations have safe habitat.
As NRI's Mike Brennan puts it, a hat tip to this drab-colored tortoise that has inspired an unprecedented, bar-setting collaboration of conservation efforts among federal and state wildlife agencies. With the collective push forward from private landowners and stakeholders, NRI researchers began the lengthy process of relocating over 4,000 gopher tortoises to development-free habitats protected by conservation easements and military installations in the Florida panhandle in 2016. By relocating the tortoises to habitat protected from development, they would be able to establish successful populations, reverse the trend of decline, and reduce regulatory burdens on landowners and military preparedness.
Once relocated, Passive Automated Monitoring Systems (PAMS) were set up around the enclosure to photograph activity every 60 seconds over the years, allowing researchers to monitor and analyze tortoise movements as well as the surrounding dynamics within the community, helping determine gopher tortoise condition post-relocation. This ideal type of monitoring allows researchers to collect high-quality data without interfering with gopher tortoise behavior.
One major hallmark of successful acclimation that researchers were hoping to see was reproduction but, realistically, did not anticipate this occurring for several years as the tortoises faced the natural barriers to success that can accompany relocation. Much sooner than expected, our relocation team recently recorded footage of three gopher tortoise hatchlings emerging from their burrow. Although this is just one instance of successful reproduction, it is a positive indicator that the tortoises are adjusting well to their new home. Now that the gopher tortoise hatchlings have emerged from their burrow, they will embark on a new journey to independence as they learn to survive and thrive. In this next phase, NRI scientists will be eagerly monitoring these first hatchlings to see if they are able to survive to adulthood against all the natural pressures ahead.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in early October 2022 that within the eastern portion of their range, gopher tortoises no longer meet the criteria for a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act. This is positive news for NRI and the many other organizations and collaborators who have worked hard in recent years to improve conditions for the tortoises. We hope to continue seeing success stories, such as these young hatchlings, that will strengthen and stabilize populations throughout the southeast.