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NAS Pensacola Home to Gopher Tortoise Population

22 October 2021

From Joshua Cox

PENSACOLA, Fla. - On a sunny day in mid-October, representatives from the Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola Public Works Department ventured to a site near the airfield in an attempt to catch a glimpse of a gopher tortoise hidden in an underground burrow.

In a field full of orange cones marked “gopher tortoise,” the crew located a particular burrow of an active and rather large reptile.

The crew used a scope camera with a live viewfinder to evaluate the tortoise in the burrow. After feeding the scope camera inside the burrow a foot or two, the tortoise could be seen on the viewfinder. A few moments later, the tortoise emerged from the hole — he seemed a bit agitated, yet curious while surveying the visitors and camera equipment.

NAS Pensacola is home to a population of the gopher tortoise, a species native to the Southeastern United States.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the adult gopher tortoise is a 9-15” long native terrestrial turtle, with scaly, shovel-like forelimbs and a tan, brown, and or gray shell.

“Their namesake comes from the numerous 3 to 6-feet deep and 15 to 40-feet long burrows they dig throughout their 40 to 60-year lifespan,” said Paige Wiebe, a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern with the NAS Pensacola Public Works Department, Environmental Division.

Wiebe said the tortoise loves the approximately 1,700 acres of dry, sandy upland coastal plain areas found throughout NAS Pensacola, with populations concentrated in roughly eight locations around the installation.

Due to their rapidly declining population within the last 100 years from habitat loss, the tortoise has been listed as a threatened species in the state of Florida, according to the American Forestry Foundation.

The gopher tortoise population as of a 2017-2018 survey conducted on NAS Pensacola found 134 gopher tortoises and 300 burrows determined to be in use out of the 473 burrows documented, Wiebe said.

NAS Pensacola participates in gopher tortoise conservation efforts, led by the Environmental Division of the installation’s Public Works Department.

“The NAS Pensacola gopher tortoise program operates under a Candidate Conservation Agreement, which aims to work towards increasing conservation management of the gopher tortoise,” Wiebe said.

This program is officially called the Navy Southeast Region Gopher Tortoise Candidate Conservation Agreement, also known as the GTCCA.

“Official gopher tortoise population surveys on NAS Pensacola are conducted every three to four years,” Wiebe said. “The surveys collect data on the gopher tortoise populations by determining the number of active burrows within suitable habitat areas, which is done based on visual appearance and depth measurement of each burrow.”

Conservation of the gopher tortoise is important because it is a keystone species, meaning their absence would have a profoundly negative impact on the surrounding habitat and the many species who rely on their burrows for shelter, said Michael Hardy, NAS Pensacola natural resources manager, Public Works Department, Environmental Division.

“If their populations continue to decline in Florida, they may become a federally listed threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, which would negatively impact the military mission by potentially adding additional regulations and restrictions on military lands,” Wiebe said.

The gopher tortoise population onboard NAS Pensacola is in a protected area of the base near the airfield.

“The general public does not have access to the area and predators are reduced as the entire area is fenced off,” Wiebe added.

Hardy said the Public Works Department is continually participating in projects that will result in the expansion and conservation of the Gopher tortoise population on the installation. The department plans to clear a portion of a wooded area on the installation soon to create space for an additional gopher tortoise habitat.

Wiebe said the Environmental Division team takes pride in the work they accomplish to conserve and protect the gopher tortoise population on the installation.

“Participating in gopher tortoise conservation gives us a feeling of fulfillment since we know our work helping the gopher tortoise also helps restore and preserve native ecosystems of the southeast while protecting other threatened species that depend on these ecosystems and the gopher tortoise burrows,” Wiebe said. “It feels like you are really making a measurable difference which is huge, even if it is on a small scale.”

The Environmental Division team said base personnel should avoid areas inhabited by the gopher tortoise — both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under Florida state law.

*Data from past NAS Pensacola gopher tortoise surveys, and information from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and American Forestry Foundation was used to produce this article.

 
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