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The crucial role gopher tortoises play in our ecosystems & the threats they face from humans

A gopher tortoise in Mike Kiniry's yard.
Mike Kiniry / WGCU
A gopher tortoise in Mike Kiniry's yard.

April 10 is Gopher Tortoise Day, as designed by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and the nonprofit Gopher Tortoise Council. So, we have a conversation about the importance of these large, long-lived reptiles that can be found in all of Florida’s 67 counties.

The gopher tortoise is one of five species of tortoises found in North America, and they are the only tortoise naturally found east of the Mississippi River. The gopher tortoise’s range includes southeastern Louisiana east to southern South Carolina, and south to Florida.

They are listed as Threatened here in Florida, but their Florida population is not federally protected — though gopher tortoises are federally protected in the portion of their range in some parts of western Alabama. There have been efforts in recent years to have them federally protected, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently denied a petition to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice on March 22 of this year of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for denying Endangered Species Act protections to the eastern population of gopher tortoises.

These large, slow moving reptiles are crucial to ecosystems because of the deep burrows they dig and live in. More than 350 other species — known as commensals — take advantage of those burrows for shelter. Their main threats are cars while trying to cross roads, and development that occurs on the land where they live.

Dr. Nora Demers, Associate Professor of Biology at Florida Gulf Coast University and a member of the nonprofit Gopher Tortoise Council
Joanna Fitzgerald, Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples

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