April 10, 2023
Kent Wimmer

Sixty million years ago - it was hotter and more humid than today, and many parts of Florida were under the ocean. It was in this very different world that the gopher tortoise first appeared in what is now the U.S. April 10 is Gopher Tortoise Day, a day to raise awareness about this important keystone species and one of the oldest species on the planet. 

Juvenile gopher tortoise
Nicole Freidenfelds

The gopher tortoise is considered “an ecosystem engineer” as it modifies and creates habitats in the ecosystem it occupies. Although it is only 9 to 11 inches long and 10 pounds when it is a fully grown adult, it can dig burrows 40 feet long and 10 feet deep. These burrows become important habitats for a variety of other species such as the gopher frog, Florida mouse, the endangered eastern indigo snake, eastern diamondback rattlesnake and hundreds of ecologically important insects. Altogether more than 300 other species use gopher tortoise burrows – they are the ultimate wildlife homebuilder. 
Gopher tortoises like to live on higher, dry land. Unfortunately, this type of environment is exactly where humans like to live, too. In Florida, a key area for gopher tortoises, nearly 900 people move to the state every single day, which means that there is an overwhelming demand for clearing land to build houses, businesses and roads.

Gopher tortoise
Running Wild Media

Gopher tortoise habitat ranges from southern South Carolina and Georgia into Florida and west into southern Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. However, the western population of tortoises in the latter three states is threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation. 

In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was petitioned to list the eastern population of gopher tortoises as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In response states and public agencies and private landowners began to step up protection to prevent further decline of the species, and to avoid it being actually listed on the ESA, and the regulations on land use that would come with that.

At that time, Florida issued permits to landowners and developers allowing them to destroy gopher tortoises and their habitat in exchange for fees the state used to purchase and improve gopher tortoise habitat elsewhere. Those permits allowed developers to bulldoze and bury gopher tortoises and their burrows resulting in the deaths of over 100,000 tortoises. 

Gopher tortoise
Justin Grubb/Running Wild Media

In 2008, facing possible federal listing on the Endangered Species list and accompanying regulation, Defenders of Wildlife and others succeeded in persuading the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to adopt a new program to protect gopher tortoises. This new state-run program required developers to remove and relocate gopher tortoises before construction to authorized sites managed to protect gopher tortoises.

Complementing these state regulation, Federal, and private land managers increased the use of prescribed fire (the controlled application of fire by experts) on their lands to promote ground-level vegetation that gopher tortoises and other species need to thrive. Some managers like Eglin Air Force Base and Nokuse Plantation in Northwest Florida have repopulated suitable, protected habitat with relocated tortoises, rescued from certain death on development sites


In October 2022, after several years of considering input from experts, states and the public, the FWS decided that listing the tortoise as threatened was no longer warranted. With this decision, the pressure of pending federal-level regulatory action to protect this species faded away. The eastern gopher tortoise now relies on state, local and private conservation actions and regulations.

The questions now are will state and local authorities continue to regulate gopher tortoise habitat destruction, and will suitable habitat be maintained and protected without pending federal regulation through the ESA? At least in Florida, the species continues to enjoy state projection. In the meantime, Defenders of Wildlife will continue our work to ensure public land managers have the resources to be good stewards and that state regulatory agencies do not backslide on protecting this species which is essential for the survival of hundreds of other species. 

Gopher tortoise being rescued
Hearst Media Production Group
A rescued gopher tortoise



What you can do:

•    If you see a gopher tortoise burrow that might be at risk in Florida, report it [LINK] 
•    Help in this important conservation work by becoming a member of Defenders of Wildlife.


Kent Wimmer

Kent Wimmer

Senior Northwest Florida Representative
As Senior Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, Kent Wimmer is advocating for protecting landscapes and wildlife habitats in northwestern Florida.

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