Panhandle Military Base To Help Relocate Hundreds Of Displaced Gopher Tortoises

Jan 20, 2017

When you think of gopher tortoise conservation efforts, what’s the first place that comes to mind? What about a military base? Eglin Air Force Base is partnering with national and state wildlife officials on a massive effort to help relocate hundreds of the threatened species.

In a promotional video, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is hoping to get more people—even kids—involved in protecting gopher tortoises.

“Hi, I’m Andrea and I’m Keen and we’re here to tell you about Gopher Tortoises! Gopher tortoises do not live in the water. They are terrestrial, which means land. These reptiles are the only land tortoise, found east of the Mississippi River…”

The FWC also has other efforts underway to encourage gopher tortoise conservation. That includes providing financial incentives worth thousands of dollars to local governments willing to improve the reptile’s habitats, like prescribed burning.

“Even invasive species removal can qualify for up to $15,000 in reimbursement, and the theory there is by increasing or improving gopher tortoise habitats, you’re also increasing the potential for the commensal species—there’s 362 commensal species that rely on the gopher tortoise burrow for either survival or to escape predators or extreme temperatures,” said Alex Kalfin with the FWC’s Gopher Tortoise Conservation Program. “So, by managing for the gopher tortoise, you’re basically managing for all these other species as well.”

FWC also partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Eglin Air Force Base to relocate at least 500 gopher tortoises over the next year to the military base in the Panhandle.

Primarily from Central Florida, the gopher tortoises will come from different areas across the state slated for development.

So, why Eglin Air Force Base?

Eglin is not only one of the largest Air Force bases in the U.S., it has thousands of acres of forest land.

And, Justin Johnson, an Eglin wildlife biologist, says the base has been doing similar conservation efforts like this for more than three decades—whether it’s helping the Red Cockaded Woodpecker or the Okaloosa darter—a type of small fish. In fact, Johnson says thanks to Eglin’s efforts, federal wildlife officials changed the Okaloosa darter’s endangered status.

“In 2011, we were able to sufficiently improve and protect Okaloosa Darter Habitat to the point that it was downlisted from endangered to threatened,” said Johnson. “That just doesn’t happen very often. There are a lot of species that are put on the list, but very rarely do they ever get downlisted or taken off the list.”

Now, Jeremy Preston, Eglin’s Endangered Species biologist, says they hope the gopher tortoise relocation effort goes well to create what’s considered a minimum viable population, or 250 adult gopher tortoises.

“Those 500 tortoises represent two minimum viable populations, and that’s what this effort is: is to try and establish two minimum viable populations on the Eglin landscape,” said Preston. “So, we have no viable populations that we know of currently. So, we’re building towards our first viable populations of 250 animals, and so far we’ve received about 100 of those.”

And, Eglin spokesman Mike Spaits says these conservation efforts not only aid the gopher tortoises as well as other species that benefit from their underground burrows, it also helps the air force base—by providing more flexibility to conduct different military exercises.

“So, when we have to go out and we have to do critical, very important national defense testing that may impact some of the habitats or species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—our regulators—with confidence, they’ll allow us to perform these military missions and won’t…say ‘no, you can’t do that because of the impact to the species.’ They know that ultimately, we’ll do the right thing for the various species,” said Spaits. “But, we’re not just indiscriminately dropping bombs and missiles and guns throughout that. It’s very specific small areas.”

Spaits says the gopher tortoises will be placed in non-public areas safely away from the military exercises.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.