The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is looking for community partners to help it protect gopher tortoises. A meeting scheduled for Wednesday will offer a chance for local governments and the public to learn more about supporting the threatened species.
Gopher Tortoise Program Coordinator Deborah Burr says the tortoise plays a much bigger role than its stolid demeanor might suggest.
“Well the gopher tortoise is a keystone species,” Burr says, “and what that means is that the gopher tortoise, by its own existence, provides habitat and refuge for many other species.”
More than 350 other species actually.
She explains, tortoises tunnel into the soil, and their burrows provide shelter for other animals like the gopher frog and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, as well as many invertebrates. Florida has designated the gopher tortoise threatened, which means it is likely to be endangered – or on the brink of extinction – in the near future.
Burr says one of the most important efforts in helping maintain tortoise habitats is prescribed burning.
“The gopher tortoise is a fire-dependent species and relies on an open canopy and plentiful, herbaceous ground cover for it to forage on,” Burr says.
The Wildlife Commission manages the gopher tortoise population and looks to meetings like the one Wednesday to integrate municipal governments in its efforts. The meeting will be held at the Dorothy Cooper Spense Community Center from 1 p.m to 4 p.m. Following a prepared presentation, the commission will lead a visit to the St. Marks headwaters to view tortoise burrows.