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Barnwell County town awaits arrival of hatchling gopher tortoises

Barnwell County town awaits arrival of hatchling gopher tortoises

And, if all goes well, the community’s population could increase soon by as many as 14 souls.

Several months ago, Hilda Mayor Johnny McClary glanced over to the town’s gopher tortoise pen and spotted “Lucy” sitting at an odd angle. He realized she was laying eggs and using her legs to throw dirt over them.

“She would lay three eggs and cover them up with dirt, then lay three more and cover those up,” said McClary. In all, Lucy laid at least 14 eggs.

The mayor contacted a University of Georgia wildlife biologist who has been monitoring the town’s tortoises.

McClary has set up a wildlife camera pointed directly at the mound where the eggs are buried. “I hope we will be able to watch them hatch,” said McClary.

According to the Gopher Tortoise Council, “The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) belongs to a group of land tortoises that originated in western North America nearly 60 million years ago. At least 23 species of tortoise are known to have existed on our continent since that time, but only five remain today.”

Lucy, Frank and several other Gopher tortoises reside in a 40-foot by 50-foot chain link pen. The pen has concrete siding that goes underground about three feet to keep the tortoises from tunneling out. Chain link not only are the “walls” of the pen but also the ceiling to keep predators out. McClary recently added a finer strip of screen around the base of the chain link to keep small animals out.

During the day, the tortoises bury under the pen’s grassy carpet in the sandy soil. “You have to be careful how you walk because there are some pretty deep holes,” warned McClary.

The tortoises are the mascots of Hilda and have been residents there for about 78 years.

“Frank Hartzog brought them here in 1938 from Florida. He kept them in his yard right across the street there,” said McClary, pointing across the street from the Hilda Town Hall and the other side of the town’s depot.

Frank and his wife Lucy tended to the tortoises for decades. After their property was sold, the tortoises were given to a family member who later contacted the town about taking over care of the reptiles.

“The Hartzog Foundation paid for the pen to be built in 2004,” said McClary. “We named them Frank and Lucy Hartzog.”

Gopher tortoises are a “threatened” species, and the town had to get special permission from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to keep them. In the town hall is a framed permit issued in 2004 allowing the town to keep four tortoises. Because the pen has been expanded from the original enclosure, they have been allowed to keep several more.

“I think there are around seven in there,” said McClary.

There is one tortoise that is currently residing inside town hall in a cardboard box. About the diameter of a tennis ball, this little one is estimated to be around 2 years old, said McClary.

Tortoises mature when they are about 10 to 15 years old, according to the Gopher Tortoise Council, and usually live in excess of 60 years.

“We don’t know how old Frank and Lucy are,” said McClary, “but we know they are very old.”

And soon these old-timers will be joined, hopefully, by over a dozen tiny tortoises.

Once the hatchlings arrive, they won’t live in Hilda long. “They will be taken to the tortoise refuge at Montmorenci (outside of Aiken),” said McClary.