Threatened tortoises get a new lease on life from Louisiana Natural Heritage Program
As soon as I learned that volunteers were needed to help move a pen for gopher tortoises at Sandy Hollow Wildlife Management Area, I signed on. For me, it would be a way to follow up on a story I wrote nearly 25 years ago and to find out how the threatened reptiles are doing.
As I drove to Tangipahoa Parish Monday morning, I thought about my introduction to gopher tortoises not long after I went to work for The Times-Picayune. One September day in 1989, the St. Tammany bureau got a lead on a tortoise release, and the bureau chief must have said, « This one’s for you, Sheila. »
I had already written about ostriches, a zdonk (a zebra-donkey hybrid) and hissing cockroaches. Animals were my beat.
So a photographer and I set off for Sandy Hollow to learn about gopher tortoises. That day, 10 city dwellers were released in their new country home, provided by the Louisiana Natural Heritage Program, a division of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The waif tortoises had been living at Audubon Zoo, after being turned in by various people who’d found them.
The tortoises, whose shells were a burnished brown and gray with geometric patterns, ranged in size from about 8- to 12-inches long and were between the ages of 20- and 30-something.
« Often people call and tell me they’ve found one walking down the street in New Orleans, » said Curt Burnette, curator of the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. « I know that’s not their native habitat. »
Richard Martin, a zoologist with the heritage program at the time, explained that their new location — a hilly, sandy terrain in the middle of a longleaf pine savanna — closely resembled the tortoises’ rapidly disappearing natural habitat.
Martin and the program coordinator had built a temporary enclosure and dug shallow burrows for the tortoises to move into, hoping they’d deepen the burrows and make themselves at home. They had shown no interest in breeding at the zoo, and the ultimate goal was for them to go forth and multiply.
« This should be a great place for these tortoises, an ideal place, » Martin said, as we watched them lumber off in all directions, looking for shady areas where they could get out of the heat.
We left that day hoping they’d like their new digs.
Monday, I learned that they’d liked them just fine.
« They’re doing really well. They’re reproducing, » Keri Landry, a biologist with the natural heritage program, told us. « Our largest population in the state is right here at Sandy Hollow. »
Landry has counted at least 60 half-moon shaped burrows.
« We try to find every single one, » she said.
Some of the burrows probably belong to the tortoises released in 1989. They can live 50 or 60 years in the wild.
They are doing so well in the original location that the last time Landry released a group of waifs, she put them in another remote section of the wildlife management area. The new area was where we took up the chicken-wire and Rebar fence on Monday. It’s in the process of being rebuilt across a hill about 200 yards away and will be used for a new group that will be released later this year.