The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is one of five land tortoise species native to North America, and the only species of land tortoise native to Florida and the southeastern United States. As the “gopher” name implies, gopher tortoises are extensive burrowers, creating large subterranean burrows that have a characteristically half-moon shaped opening that is round on top and flat on the bottom. A gopher tortoise burrow may span up to 40 feet in length and 12 feet in depth within well drained soils, and contrary to popular belief, there is only a single entrance / exit hole per burrow. Their burrows characteristically maintain a fairly consistent temperature and humidity level throughout the year, providing a refuge for themselves and many other wildlife species from extreme hot and cold weather events, wildfires, and predators. In fact, more than 360 wildlife species have been documented to utilize gopher tortoise burrows, including federal threatened Eastern indigo snakes, and state protected Florida pine snakes, Florida mice, and gopher frogs.
Gopher tortoises are cold-blooded, long lived reptiles that take significant time to mature. In the wild, gopher tortoises may live up to 60 years, and captive gopher tortoises have been documented to live more than 80 years. Within the state of Florida, tortoises typically take 10-20 years to reach maturity / breeding age, depending on the availability of food / weather conditions and associated growth rates. Tortoises typically breed in April-June, and may lay 1-2 clutches of eggs per year, with each clutch averaging 6 eggs (3-15 egg typical range). Eggs and young tortoises are not protected by adults, and are highly susceptible to predation, with typically fewer than 10% of hatchling tortoises reaching sexual maturity.
The gopher tortoise is currently Federally protected as a threatened species within Louisiana, Mississippi, and portions of Alabama, and within the state of Florida is protected as a state threatened species and regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC). The gopher tortoise and its burrow are legally protected from impacts, and a permit must be obtained from the FFWCC to capture and relocate tortoises in advance of any development activities that will occur within 25’ of a potentially occupied tortoise burrow. Therefore, if you are completing purchasing an undeveloped property or residential lot, or a home addition or pool and suspect or see a gopher tortoise burrow, it is recommended you have an authorized gopher tortoise agent conduct a formal gopher tortoise burrow survey to locate all the burrows and determine if they are active or potentially occupied. This is the first step in the process and will help determine if you can avoid impacting the tortoise burrow or will need to relocate the tortoise. Please check out the past October issue for a discussion of permitting and relocation options. Next month we will start a series on Wetlands and why they are important.
At Michael G. Czerwinski, P.A. (MGC), we have two FWC licensed authorized gopher tortoise agents with over 40 years of combined gopher tortoise capture and relocation experience. We have assisted local government agencies, the FDOT, Florida turnpike authority, and countless home owners and developers in assessing, permitting and relocating tortoises and other protected wildlife species over the past thirty years. Please contact us anytime should you have any questions regarding gopher tortoise protections and permitting options.
Michael Czerwinski is a Florida licensed professional geologist, professional wetland scientist, marine biologist and wildlife biologist and has been providing environmental assessments and permitting services in Citrus County since 1986.