EGLIN AFB — A host of public and private partners, including Eglin Air Force base and Gulf Power, are helping in the race to give gopher tortoises a second chance at life and bolster their numbers before 2023, when they will qualify for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Thousands of gopher tortoises in Florida are at risk of being buried alive as construction bulldozers claw up land for new development.
“Gulf Power, through our parent company Southern Company, supported a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Longleaf Stewardship Fund that earmarked dollars to pay for the costly process of rescuing, transporting and relocating 100 of these tortoises to Eglin,” said Kimberly Blair, Gulf Power spokeswoman. “Gopher tortoise populations are key to the full restoration of that landscape because they support more than 350 other species, some of which are also imperiled.”
The grant was awarded to The Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership (GCPEP), a group of 15 landowners in Northwest Florida, including Gulf Power and Eglin, who are collaborating to conserve and restore dwindling longleaf pine ecosystems.
With 280,000 acres of suitable longleaf habitat on its 464,000-acre military base, Eglin recognized a great opportunity to provide a home for thousands of the gopher tortoises, according to Jeremy Preston, Eglin Natural Resources wildlife biologist,
“With the amount of potential gopher tortoise habitat we have, we need to be as proactive as we can to preclude the need for federal listing,” he said.
Eglin began taking in the tortoises last year with a goal to provide a home for 6,000 before 2023. While saving the turtles, the goal of the Eglin Natural Resource team is to save the Air Force time and money it would take to navigate stricter rules for base operations that would be imposed under the Endangered Species Act.
“It can give the Air Force mission flexibility, so it can do its mission without interference,” Preston said. “By partnering with other organizations like Gulf Power, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we fill in the gaps that the Air Force could not, and that has sped up the process,” Preston said.
None of the gopher tortoise recovery work could be possible without Carissa Kent, founder of Saving Florida's Gopher Tortoises. The organization has saved thousands of gopher tortoises whose burrows were in the path of construction activities.
“When I first heard about this, I could not sleep,” she said. “I could not get the image out of my mind of this poor animal getting stuck and trying to dig up under someone’s living room and falling back down in their burrow and trying to do this every day for a year. Because of their slow metabolism, it can take months to slowly suffer and die underground as they run out of air, food and water.”
So far, she has saved more than 6,000 tortoises on land permitted for development in 1991-2007 that allows developers to legally build on top of their burrows. Florida’s current regulations require gopher tortoises that may be impacted by the development to be moved. The old permits, however, do not expire. Many of the developers don’t want to kill the tortoises, but they don’t have the resources to relocate them to the few areas that can provide safer havens, Kent explained.