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Nearly 150 gopher tortoises released in Georgia to help restore threatened reptile population

WAYNESBORO, Ga. — The slow, steady stroll to freedom began Friday for 148 young gopher tortoises embarking on a mission to restore the reptile’s depleted population in Georgia.

Gopher Tortoises are shown Friday at the Yuchi Wildlife Management Area near Waynesboro. In a collaboration between the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, St. Catherines Island Foundation, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Reed Bingham State Park, 148 of the tortoises were released in order to replenish the population in the area.   CHRIS THELEN/STAFF

CHRIS THELEN/STAFF
Gopher Tortoises are shown Friday at the Yuchi Wildlife Management Area near Waynesboro. In a collaboration between the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, St. Catherines Island Foundation, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Reed Bingham State Park, 148 of the tortoises were released in order to replenish the population in the area.

Scratching at the edge of plastic storage containers, gopher tortoises reared from tiny eggs to about the size of a human hand in 10 months were eager to find their new home. Research scientists from the Savannah River Ecology Lab and other agencies gently placed the reptiles in temporary, protective pens at Burke County’s Yuchi Wildlife Management Area.

“Gopher tortoise populations are in decline throughout their entire range,” said Dan Quinn, SREL graduate student from the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “They’re a really important resource for ecosystems where they occur naturally because they dig these nice, elaborate burrows that other animals will use.”

Quinn, officials from Georgia Department of Natural Resources, SREL students and others traveled to the Yuchi management area near Plant Vogtle power plant to acclimate the animals to their new habitat. The tortoises – who have a strong homing instinct – were released into wire pens in groups of five.

A radio transmitter was attached to one-fifth of the animals so Quinn and others can track their movements, survival and possibly study them once they reach adulthood. Quinn will check on the tortoises about twice a week before releasing them from the four-by-four foot containment areas in 30 days.

Gopher tortoises, the official state reptile, have been endangered by development activities, solar panel farms and other threats. The tortoises dig burrows in sandy habitats below the fall line, or the elevation change that runs across the state from Columbus to Augusta.

John Jensen, DNR senior wildlife biologist, said conservation projects such as Friday’s tortoise release can help keep the gopher tortoise from inclusion on the federal endangered species list. The state agency is studying populations and trying to count the number of tortoises at various sites.

“There are a lot of populations with really good habitat and the density of tortoises is adequate and probably can’t take many more,” Jensen said. “Then, we have places like this where the habitat has been restored but the tortoises, because of past management, were so depleted that they aren’t going to be able to replenish themselves.”

Last summer, Quinn collected tortoise eggs from Yuchi, St. Catherines Island and Reed Bingham State Park near Adel, Ga. They were hatched and raised in an indoor, climate-controlled lab at SREL.

A yearling started munching on grass just minutes after being released into a pen, a behavior that indicates their adaptation to the land, according to scientists who were observing the animals. Each pen had small, handmade burrows to help the tortoises in their habitat.

The 7,800-acre Yuchi area has plentiful sunshine and good ground cover for tortoise food, Quinn said. Five more tortoises ready for release were held back because of ants near their pen.

The research project was funded by a state grant for nongame wildlife programs from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that totaled $90,000 after matching funds, said Tracey Tuberville, SREL associate research scientist. The two-year grant was extended for a third year to allow monitoring of the released tortoises.