Expert encouraged by humans’ sensitivity to gopher tortoises
After 33 years, Joan Berish is used to the pictures — and the jokes — of her with her head in a hole in the ground.
Crawling into burrows is part of the job of a gopher tortoise researcher, and Berish, who will soon retire from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is one of the most noted gopher experts nationally and has played a key role in saving the reptiles from extinction.
“I certainly feel very comfortable passing on the baton,” said Berish, whose work with FWC is based in Gainesville. “I’m part of a wonderful team, not just researchers but people who have expertise in management, law enforcement, education … I’ve been so blessed to work and collaborate.”
In recognition for her work, Berish was recently awarded the 2013 Louise Ireland Humphrey Achievement Award by FWC, named after a former FWC board member and a state leader in conservation.
The award was presented at an FWC meeting by Ken Haddad, chairman of the Wildlife Foundation of Florida and a former FWC executive director.
“Joan Berish is an outstanding wildlife scientist and her 33-plus-year career and commitment to conserving gopher tortoises and upland ecosystems reflects a lifetime achievement,” he said.
Gopher tortoises may lack the wildness of a Florida panther or the gentleness of a manatee — the state’s other notable species in peril — though their E.T.-like faces strike many as endearing.
But gophers were once as much a part of the Florida landscape as pine trees and palmetto. They need sandy soil for their burrows so they were common in upland areas all across Florida.