TREASURE COAST — Spring is an active time for gopher tortoises, so it is the perfect time for the launch of the new Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard Recognition Program.
The purpose of the Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard Recognition Program is to recognize and encourage private landowners to enhance habitat quality and take steps to protect gopher tortoises and their burrows. These efforts also benefit the more than 350 other species that use tortoise burrows for shelter, foraging, and nesting.
Under the new program, a yard sign and certificate will be awarded to property owners who take all possible steps to conserve the gopher tortoises on their properties, including protection of burrows.
Gopher tortoises live in every Florida county, and there are many throughout the Treasure Coast. Considering that more than half the land in Florida is privately owned, this means that private property owners play a critical role in protecting gopher tortoises.
Any Florida property owner can take steps to make their land gopher tortoise friendly. To apply for recognition, you must sign the acknowledgement form at the FWC website, provide contact and property information, and complete the gopher tortoise friendly yard checklist. Each application will be reviewed upon submission, and you should expect and respond to follow up correspondence at the email address you provide in the application.
Program volunteers will review the application and assess habitat improvements the landowner has made to provide native forage, protect the tortoise and burrows, and control invasive species.
Providing adequate native forage means planting at least three species of high biomass producing forage plants sought by gopher tortoises. You can refer to FWC's online plant guide for additional information on suitable plant forage species.
Conversely, a gopher tortoise friendly yard requires controlling invasive plant and wildlife species. Invasives include species that are nonnative to the area, were introduced by humans, and cause environmental harm or harm. In controlling such species, the FWC prefers that you limit or avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The final requirement for recognition under the program is to take steps to protect the tortoises and their burrows.
Examples include flagging the burrow to raise awareness of its presence and prevent accidental tripping or impact to the burrow; installing a tortoise road crossing sign to alert drivers; and practicing safe lawn maintenance such as by avoiding driving a riding lawn mower within 13 feet of the burrow entrance, setting mower blades as high as possible above the ground, and using a weed trimmer instead.
Identify areas in the yard that are a safety concern, and take preventative measures to keep tortoises from establishing burrows in those locations. This can be accomplished by installing a barrier buried at least eight inches in the ground; landscaping the area with gravel because tortoises do not like to dig in rocky soil; or laying pavers around the area so the tortoise is restricted to digging a burrow entrance under a buffer substrate instead of directly beneath the location of concern.
Take steps to protect the tortoises from dogs. While gopher tortoises don’t harm dogs, dogs do harm and kill tortoises. According to the FWC, as many as half of gopher tortoise injuries are caused by dogs, and many of the injured tortoises must be euthanized, or require human care for the rest of their lives.
Do not let your dog approach gopher tortoises or their burrows. This is also for the safety of the dogs, who can trap or injure themselves inside burrows.
Create a barrier that keeps your dog from the burrow without trapping the tortoise. This can be done with fencing, or stake materials such as woven wire into the ground.
If your yard does get accepted into the program, it is important to remember that recognition of a gopher tortoise friendly yard does not authorize gopher tortoise relocations onto the property, or disturbing the land in a way that impacts gopher tortoises or their burrows, without a permit. Florida law classifies the gopher tortoise as a threatened species and prohibits the take, molestation, or harassment of tortoises, burrows, and their nests, unless the specific action is authorized by an FWC issued permit.
If you find an injured gopher tortoise, seek help from a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. Do not attempt to treat the tortoise yourself, as improper medical care can cause more harm than good. Transport the tortoise in a large box with air holes.
For a list of permitted wildlife rehabilitators, call (850) 921-1030 on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or call 1-(888) 404-3922 after hours and on weekends.
For more information on gopher tortoises, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Gopher Tortoise Program at (850) 921-1030 or visit - MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise.
For more information about the Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard Recognition Program and to apply, visit https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/gopher-tortoise/yard-recognition/.
For information on volunteering with the FWC or to request an application, email: GTEvents@MyFWC.com.