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South Carolina DNR Biologists Work To Save Endangered Gopher Tortoise 

August 15, 2005

Fossil records indicate that gopher tortoises have dwelled in the wilds of what today is South Carolina for the past 10,000 years, and S.C. Department of Natural Resources herpetologists are working to ensure their future here.

Officially designated as a state endangered species, the estimated 2,000 burrow-digging reptiles that call South Carolina home are barely holding on in native habitat on state lands, including two heritage preserves and one state park.

The population at the 1,395-acre Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve in Aiken County is small and is targeted for recovery and enhancement by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The preserve is the northernmost known location of the large, terrestrial tortoises, which have stumpy, elephantine hind feet and spade-like front legs.

Check the DNR Web site to find out more about the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve and or the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve.

The tortoise population at Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve in Jasper County appears to be stable, possibly increasing due to habitat management.

The gopher tortoise is a keystone species in the longleaf pine sandhills community because it provides shelter for many other species of animals in its 30-foot long underground burrows, which are about 10 to 15 feet deep. The gopher tortoise can attain lengths of 15 inches, can weigh up to 15 pounds and can live 60 to 70 years.

Gopher tortoises occur in upland habitats throughout the coastal plain of the Southeast, from South Carolina west into Louisiana, with most being found in north-central Florida and southern Georgia. Their numbers have declined range-wide, but have been severely reduced at the western and northern part of their range. Some researchers have projected that unless something is done to reverse this decline, this species may soon be found only in protected areas.

To be suitable for gopher tortoises, the habitat must have well-drained sandy soils for digging burrows, herbaceous food plants, and open sunny areas for nesting and basking. Periodic natural fires play an important role in maintaining tortoise habitat by opening up the canopy and promoting growth of herbaceous food plants. If natural fires are suppressed, habitats may become unsuitable for tortoises.

According to DNR herpetologist Steve Bennett, South Carolina is at an advantage over some states like Florida that have much larger tortoise populations. "We can use prescribed fire to maintain tortoise habitat," Bennett said, "because the tortoise range here mostly is in more rural areas and not faced with development."

Why is the gopher tortoise in trouble throughout its range?

Habitat loss: Habitat alteration and land development pose the most serious threat to the continued survival of the gopher tortoise.
Road mortality: Many tortoises are killed each year by automobiles.
Tortoises as food: Tortoises were a reliable source of food during the Depression, when in some areas there was little else to eat other than "Hoover chickens." Currently, tortoise harvesting is illegal in every state where tortoises are found.

Bennett said much more needs to be done to ensure the survival of the gopher tortoise such as collecting data on habitat, learning more about burrow conditions and distribution as well as demographic data like what are the numbers for a minimally viable population.

-Written by Brett Witt-

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