Wildlife biologists soon will fan out in Northeast Florida searching for one of the state’s slowest moving and shyest species of wildlife, a reptile scientists consider crucial to a healthy ecosystem.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists plan to conduct gopher tortoise population surveys March 20-22 at the Branan Field Wildlife and Environmental Area near Jennings State Forest in Clay County. Using a relatively new method, the scientists will scope out every burrow using a 25-foot-long hose with a camera attached at one end so they can see and record what animals might be in the burrow.

“You can see clearly on the screen above ground when you find the tortoise. So, it’s pretty cool,” said Deborah Burr, coordinator of the commission’s Gopher Tortoise Management Program.

Burr said it’s part of a Fish and Wildlife Commission project to document viable populations and supporting populations of the tortoises — a keystone species — on state conservation lands. Currently, they’re focusing only on state conservations lands. Florida is fortunate enough to have such lands with so many gopher tortoises on them. The project using the burrow scope began in 2014 and they are gradually working their way to all the conservation lands but many remain to survey, she said.

The Branan Field survey is among several current or past research efforts of gopher tortoises in Northeast Florida, coinciding with a similar survey on Camp Blanding also in Clay County, which also is known for prime tortoise habitat.

Tortoise population uncertain

It’s unknown how many gopher tortoises live in Florida. Although slow moving, they’re hard to count because much of their time is spent underground in deep burrows. Scientists estimate the species’ population at about 785,000 tortoises statewide in 2006, which is the most recent data. However, that estimate resulted from a now-obsolete method involving a multi-faceted formula based on the number of burrows in a sample area, they say.

“It sounds like a lot. And we do have more tortoises in Florida than the other states do in the Southeastern United States where the gopher tortoise occurs. However, that 785,000 estimate represents basically what’s left after a greater than 60 percent decline in population,” Burr said.

The tortoises spend much of their time in their burrows or nearby feeding on grasses and other non-woody plants, or simply basking in the sun. The species is found in part of all 67 Florida counties in habitat including sandhills, scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies and coastal dunes, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Northeast Florida public conservation lands with large viable gopher tortoise populations run from Jennings State Forest and Gold Head Branch State Park in Clay County to Little Talbot Island State Park and Cecil Field in Duval County, and Guana River Wildlife Management Area in St. Johns County.

Among other Northeast Florida projects, Flagler County received a $13,660 reimbursement for managing 103 acres of tortoise habitat for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The city of Jacksonville received $15,000 for habitat management in 2012 and 2013 for 300 acres in Betz-Tiger Point Preserve, according to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The tortoises are known for digging burrows that can be up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep. The burrows provide shelter for at least 360 other species — including several classified as endangered or threatened — that otherwise might not survive. Animals finding refuge in tortoise burrows include the Eastern Indigo snake, Florida pine snake, Florida mouse, burrowing owl, gopher frog, and opossum, Burr said.

In addition, the tortoises recycle nutrients in the soil as they dig the burrows. Some research also indicates seeds in gopher tortoise droppings result in native plants growing along animal’s feeding trails. All those factors contribute to the ecosystem’s health, which is why the tortoises are a keystone species.

It’s not easy being a gopher tortoise. Survival can be a daily challenge especially for the young, Burr said.

Slow to reproduce, the tortoises face threats from nature and man. Predators including coyotes, raccoons, crows and snakes will eat their eggs or hatchlings. Habitat loss and degradation due to deforestation and development, as well as getting run over by cars and even incidents of people pouring gasoline into their burrows to burn out rattlesnakes have contributed to the species’ decline, and pose ongoing threats to tortoise populations, Burr said.

“Overall, about 1 percent of all eggs laid will actually make it to become a reproductive adult gopher tortoise,” said Burr, noting the tortoise typically only have seven to nine eggs in a clutch, and only one clutch a year. A tortoise will be 15 years old before it reproduces, she said.

The tortoises are a threatened species protected by Florida law. It is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a maximum $5,000 fine to intentionally kill, injure, harass or take a gopher tortoise, or deliberately destroy its eggs or burrow. Nonetheless, Burr said some people abduct the tortoises to keep as pet while others will even eat them.

Burr said they should find a viable population at Branan Field WEA is a 386-acre preserve is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The preserve is composed of sandhills, pine flatwoods, wiregrass, palmettos and various other native wildflowers and grasses — all habitat favored by gopher tortoises.

Camp Blanding tortoise haven

Sandhills also are among the five ecosystems at Camp Blanding, which also is documenting its tortoise population .

“We have five large population centers that we are sampling,” said Matthew Corby, environmental conservation manager for the Florida National Guard training installation in southwest Clay County. They finished surveying the first area last year. The second should be completed by mid-March, Corby said.

“We have quite a few of them here but the densities are lower than sort of a dominant density because we’ve done in the last 15 years fairly extensive restoration of the habitat they’re supposed to be in … So, we’re hoping to see in the population monitoring a slow, steady incline from a fairly low starting point,” he said.

The survey dovetails with a first-of-its-kind in Florida conservation agreement to be signed by Camp Blanding, state Fish and Wildlife Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement requires assurances detailing conservation measures Camp Blanding must implement to protect multiple at-risk wildlife species including gopher tortoises.

As long as the Florida National Guard manages the land for quality gopher tortoise habitat, Camp Blanding would not be subject to any potential future federal regulations under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Camp Blanding is required to annually submit detailed information proving it’s maintaining the quality habitat. That would include tortoise population data, said Corby.

As part of the agreement, the Fish and Wildlife Commission issued a five-year permit to the Florida National Guard authorizing it conduct military training exercises that might impact gopher tortoises without first getting any additional permits. However, that is only allowed as long as Camp Blanding follows the conservation practices detailed in the agreement as well as its Natural Resources Management Plan.

The Camp Blanding pact is only the second such conservation agreement in the nation. The first protects the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake in Michigan. But the Camp Blanding agreement is the first in the nation based on habitat, Corby said.

Corby also said they already take precautions to protect gopher tortoises and their habitat. “We have no gopher tortoises that were not on Camp Blanding …We are not a recipient site for gopher tortoises from outside places,” he said.

Burr said coinciding with the population surveys, the second annual statewide Gopher Tortoise Day on April 10 is an initiative giving the public an opportunity learn about and appreciate the species.

“We’re looking at opportunities to help conserve our native wildlife because we’re not necessarily getting any more habitat in the future. It’s just we really have to conserve and appreciate what we have here in Florida,” Burr said.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075