Abandoned tortoise headed for habitat at Panama City Beach Conservation Park
« Walt » the gopher tortoise soon will have a permanent home in a wilderness habitat opening next month at the Panama City Beach Conservation Park.
PANAMA CITY — “Walt” the gopher tortoise has twice escaped from his makeshift pen in Dale Colby’s office only to be found in another room.
“He had pushed out the table,” said Colby, Panama City Beach’s parks resources supervisor. “He’s itching to get out of here.”
The gopher tortoise soon will have a permanent home in a wilderness habitat opening next month at the Panama City Beach Conservation Park on Griffin Boulevard.
The tortoise named Walt was found abandoned outside a veterinarian’s office in Fort Walton Beach about a month ago. He is the first dislocated and abandoned gopher tortoise, known as a “waif” gopher tortoise,” who will make the park its home.
The park is the first in North Florida permitted to take in waif tortoises. A waif gopher tortoise is one that has been removed from the wild but is not associated with a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation-permitted relocation effort. They are generally from unknown sites, so they cannot be returned to their original location.
Gopher tortoises are a threatened species in Florida, as their habitat have been in continued decline. With an average life span of 80 years, the tortoises, unlike turtles, are land animals, burrowing holes that are used by 360 species for different purposes in nature. Some animals use the holes to get out of extreme heat. Others use them to escape predators. Snakes hunt animals in the holes.
The state issues several permits for refuge sites for tortoises. Nokuse Plantation in Walton County has a permit to take in tortoises displaced by development, but not tortoises considered waif.
The Conservation Park in Panama City Beach has set aside 8 acres for the waif program and 60 acres for a gopher tortoise relocation site.
Colby, who pointed out the Conservation Park Waif Gopher Tortoise project would not have been possible without a grant of $2,000 from the Ironman foundation, said the tortoises spend about 80 percent of their lives underground, so park visitors may get only an occasional glimpse of Walt.
His habitat “is about 60 feet off the trail,” Colby said. “They might see him when they are out at the park. We’ll have a sign up that says ‘gopher tortoise crossing.’ ”
Alex Kalfin, gopher tortoise local government coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the Conservation Park and a private landowner are the only two permitted locations to take in the waif tortoises, and the private landowner hasn’t yet taken in one.
He said tortoises sometimes get upper respiratory infections that can be spread to other tortoises. Bringing them to waif tortoise sites reduces the risk of infecting many other tortoises because there are not a lot of tortoises and they are checked by veterinarians before being released.
“They are extremely important” to the ecosystem, he said of the gopher tortoises. “Not only does it build borrows [used by other animals], but it causes seed dispersal in ecosystems and distributes nutrients to the soil.”