Gopher tortoise taking a walk

Gopher Tortoise Numbers Improving As LDWF, Partners Work To Bring Back Species

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

Oh the tales Louisiana’s gopher tortoises could tell. One was found crossing Veteran’s Boulevard in Metairie, one in a construction zone in Destrehan, another in Baton Rouge and one was discovered all the way in Church Point.

All those locations are well away from where they should be. The range for gopher tortoises in Louisiana is in the southeast portion of the state in Washington, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes.

So why in the world were they in those places? Keri Landry, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist, can’t say exactly but she has some theories.

“I wish the tortoises could talk,’’ said Landry, an endangered species biologist with LDWF’s Louisiana Natural Heritage Program. “Sometimes people pick them up and bring them home as pets unaware that it is illegal to keep the federally threatened species. Then they may get loose or the people who pick them up find out they’re a threatened species and let them go, afraid of getting in trouble.’’

Whatever the reason, they don’t belong in those locales. And because gopher tortoises are so attached to the area that they call home, it’s important to keep them in familiar territory. Left to their own devices, they’ll wander for miles. That can put them in serious danger.

“They have such a strong homing instinct,’’ Landry said. “If removed from their natural habitat, they’ll want to roam until they find where they came from, which may put them in harm’s way near roads and other unsuitable areas.’’

For most turtles, Louisiana is paradise. The numerous waterbodies, marshes and dense woods throughout the state provide a haven for many turtle species. But the gopher tortoise is somewhat different.

It is a large dark-brown to grayish black terrestrial turtle with elephantine hind feet and shovel-like forefeet used for digging extensive burrows for shelter. No other turtle species in Louisiana depends on underground burrows to the extent the gopher tortoise does.

The habitat in which they thrive and prefer is found in Louisiana’s easternmost Florida Parishes. Gopher tortoises reside in upland longleaf pine forests and mixed pine-hardwood forests where soils must be sandy and well-drained. They can also be found in other open areas, including pastures, roadsides and right-of-ways if the surrounding pine-dominated forest habitat is unmanaged and unsuitable.

But even in those three parishes, the habitat has diminished through the years. So much so that the gopher tortoise population in Louisiana is only about 300-400 individuals, Landry estimates.

The species’ range includes the coastal plain from South Carolina through Florida to southeastern Louisiana. The gopher tortoise was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1987 in the western portion of its range from Louisiana to the Tombigbee River in Alabama. It was state listed as threatened in Louisiana in 1989.

The low numbers paint a dark picture for the gopher tortoise in the Bayou State. Landry, however, is hopeful about the recovery of the species and sees better days ahead. The reason is the partnerships developed with other agencies and stakeholders, private citizens and landowners, and timber companies in Louisiana to help restore the gopher tortoise population.

Habitat Renewal

The availability of suitable habitat is the key to bringing back the gopher tortoise. One of the primary threats to the gopher tortoise’s habitat is conversion of natural open longleaf pine forests into other forest types or residential and commercial development. In southern St. Tammany Parish, for example, residential expansion has exploded since the 1980s as it has become a bedroom suburb of New Orleans.

Gopher tortoise decline in Louisiana is not just because there is less land available as a result of development. Gopher tortoises eat low-growing herbaceous plants for the most part. Many of the existing forests have not undergone prescribed burns in decades which significantly decreases food availability for the species.

If left unmanaged, thick bushes often referred to as mid-story tend to grow in the wooded areas. That blocks sunlight from reaching the ground layer and prevents the growth of grasses and forbs for gopher tortoises to eat. Gopher tortoises dig burrows and spend a good bit of time below ground but they’re dependent on the plants just above them.

“They are extremely important,’’ Landry said of the prescribed burns. “Gopher tortoises can only eat plants that are a foot tall or less. So if there is nothing for them to eat, they’re moving out away from their burrows to find nearby open areas, which may put them in harm’s way. If the habitat isn’t suitable, they may not reproduce.’’

The good news is the private landowners in the area, including industrial timber companies, are working with Landry and LDWF to improve gopher tortoise habitat.

“We’re getting fire on the ground, and we’re working on restoration,’’ Landry said. “We’ve also used herbicide treatments which really helps create openings in the piney woods. Just last year, we burned nearly 1,600 acres on nine different private properties in Tangipahoa Parish. Many of these properties are located near Sandy Hollow Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and serve to supplement habitat found there. Once we start opening up the habitat, the gopher tortoise population will be able to expand.

LDWF has managed habitat for upland game birds and gopher tortoises on Sandy Hollow WMA since acquiring the property in the mid-1980s. Pine forests on the WMA are thinned frequently to allow sunlight to reach the ground and encourage growth of understory grasses and forbs. In addition, prescribed burns are used every one to two years to manage understory vegetation and control hardwood brush. Sandy Hollow WMA is home to about 75 gopher tortoises. The WMA has had several documented gopher tortoise nests.

“I am encouraged,’’ Landry said. “I’ve been amazed because of the success we’ve had working with private landowners. They’ve been great to work with and they have an appreciation for conserving habitat and for these tortoises. With all of the relationships we’ve developed with these landowners, things are looking up.’’

Nests have been found in recent years on private lands likely due to habitat restoration activities.

Improving the habitat doesn’t just benefit the gopher tortoises. It also helps species like turkey and quail, Landry said.

“Many of these landowners enjoy hunting and what’s good for gopher tortoises is good for turkey and quail,’’ Landry said. “If you build it, they will come. If you manage the forest for one species, you’re managing for the others.’’

Helping Hands

Caring for waif gopher tortoises is another vital part of the equation for Landry. Waif refers to tortoises that are homeless or whose origins are unknown. LDWF doesn’t have the resources to house waif gopher tortoises.

That’s where Karen and David Milliken come in. The St. Tammany Parish couple has housed many gopher tortoises, while nursing them back to health and preparing them to return to their natural habitat. The Millikens are licensed by LDWF as wildlife rehabilitators and can rehabilitate injured or orphaned wildlife for the agency.

“It would be difficult to do this without their help,’’ Landry said. “They have been instrumental to gopher tortoise conservation in Louisiana. They care for the waif tortoises and house them as long as needed until they can be released. If they’re underweight, they’ll feed them until they reach a healthy weight and care for them during the winter months when they would typically be in the comfort of their burrows.’’

Caring for the tortoises is a labor of love for the Millikens, who live in Mandeville. They began assisting Landry about four years ago, Karen said.

“My husband found a gopher tortoise years ago,’’ Karen said. “When we identified it, we notified LDWF right away. We did a lot of research on gopher tortoises. Started learning what they eat and what they’re about and about the conservation efforts the state was leading. We got hooked up with Keri at that point.

“When we talked with her, she expressed the need for people to assist. We decided with the knowledge we had with Louisiana native reptiles and turtles and tortoises, we wanted to help.’’

One of the big concerns for waif gopher tortoises is the possible presence of an upper respiratory tract disease. It’s highly contagious between tortoises, so they have to be kept apart until a health check is made by the LSU Veterinary School.

Another consideration is the time of the year. The tortoises can’t be released during the winter because the air temperature can be too cool for them. They usually spend the winters in their burrows, emerging in the spring when temperatures are warmer. The waif tortoises are kept in separate areas while in the Millikens care. Many times, the tortoises will begin to burrow.

“But, if they’re not digging their own burrows, we help them create one,’’ Karen said. “And if the temperature gets below 58 degrees, we bring them in to a 12×24 building we’ve set up.’’

The Millikens are also able to feed the waif tortoises if needed during the winter when they are kept indoors.

It’s a lot of work but Karen said the couple has developed a passion for caring for the tortoises and other animals. They also assisted Landry with the release of 21 diamondback terrapins to the wild in July 2017.

“Anything that is on the protected list, threatened or endangered, we try to really put our effort into helping,’’ Karen said. “It’s been great. Keri has been great to work with. I love what LDWF is doing. I love the fact that all the tortoises get a health check and they have a sanctuary (at Sandy Hollow WMA). I wish more people knew about gopher tortoises.’’

Though restoring gopher tortoise populations is, in itself, an important goal, this animal is known as a keystone species. More than 360 other species use the burrows created by gopher tortoises, including some that are state and federally listed. With a trail camera, Landry said she has seen fox squirrels, toad species, box turtles, rabbits, birds, and other animals coming and going from tortoise burrows.

The process is a marathon, Landry said. There is still work to be done but, because of all the partnerships developed with other agencies, stakeholders, private citizens and landowners, the gopher tortoise is on the right path.

“One of the keys to successfully managing wildlife is the partnerships we’ve developed,’’ LDWF Secretary Jack Montoucet said. “Having private citizens like the Millikens assist us makes an endeavor like this even more successful. We’re working to make the gopher tortoise another success story in Louisiana.’’