Agencies partner to increase gopher tortoise population in the south


Agencies partner to increase gopher tortoise population in the south

Nefeteria Brewster
The Augusta Chronicle

September 29, 2017  9:35 p.m.

The five pairs of gopher tortoises were released two by two and showed no hesitation in making good their escape. How they fare will give researchers an idea on the endangered species’ long-term survival.

The tortoise release was part of a 10-year project by the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Lab to increase the animal’s population. They were released Tuesday at Longleaf Pine Restoration site in South Carolina.

Fifteen more pairs will be hatched, raised and released at an undisclosed preserve to provide them with a head start for survival.

“It’s real easy to wipe out the population,” Kurt Buhlmann, a senior research associate with the ecology lab, said during the release at the nature preserve. “It takes years to get them back.”

Will Dillman, a herpetologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said it is one of two releases between now and January. He estimated the tortoises range from hatchling, to 2-years-old, to adult.

“We’re releasing them two at a time so everyone is getting paired to a hatchling,” he said, “We suspect the longer you head start them the better off they’ll do once they’re out here.”

Each tortoise was equipped with a transmitter that will allow for scientist to track how well the tortoises adapt to the environment.

“We had a number of them stay for a considerable amount of time in the adult burrows,” Dillman said. “We have observed some mortality from a variety of things, but we also have had several of them who just dropped their transmitters off.”

Once every three years a part of the estimated 1,500-acre preservation site is burned to provide food for the tortoises and a home for other endangered species. The burning helps grow a longleaf pine ecosystem, which faces a considerable decline in the state.

It’s kind of an arena for tortoises to eat and interact and actually a lot of other species use it,” Lisa Lord, state field project coordinator and Savannah Watershed project director with The Longleaf Alliance, said Tuesday. “Birds, skunks and bobcats will also use it. So this is a pretty important landscape here in addition to providing them with a home.”

Tracey Tuberville, an associate research scientist and conservation ecologist for the ecology lab, said the tortoises, which typically occupy upland habitats in northern Florida, arrive from a variety of places.

“They would have been in captive situations and sometimes we don’t know where they came from,” she said. “Sometimes people go on vacation and pick them up, so we get them from a variety of places.”

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Longleaf Alliance help preserve the site and the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia assists in hatching and raising the orphan tortoises. Funds for the project comes from grants given by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

To date the agencies have released 282 tortoises, including 160 adults, at the preserve.

During the summer Rebecca Mckee, an SREL School of Forestry and Natural Resources graduate student, worked to survey the tortoises and monitored how well they were adapting. An average of 61 tortoises were found during her study.

“It’s definitely a good sign,” McKee said. “Most of them look healthy so things are looking good for what we’ve done so far.”