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Gopher Tortoise Shows Off In Alabama

Conservation Showcase


Gopher tortoise lays eggs in field.
Gopher tortoise laying eggs in a freshly cultivated field.

By Fay Garner, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS, Auburn, AL

Gopher tortoises are fairly elusive creatures.  Usually all you see are signs that they are in the area, such as burrows, foliage bitten off, or trails.

A Mobile, Alabama, gopher tortoise allowed NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Marshall Colburn a rare, up-close-and-personal moment as she lay her eggs in a freshly cultivated field.

Marshall said, “I was on a landowner’s property doing a site assessment for the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) program and observed the gopher tortoise laying eggs.  The landowner had planted chufas the day before, and the burrow was about 20 yards away from where she laid the eggs.  I was able to stand and take photos about two feet from the apron of the hole.  How fortunate was that?  It was pretty cool sight!”

The gopher tortoise is known as a keystone species because it digs burrows that provide shelter and habitat for many other animal species.  They are considered an indicator of a healthy longleaf pine ecosystem. The gopher tortoise requires deep, well drained soils and an open understory that provides sunny sites for nesting.  Gopher tortoise help disperse seeds to maintain biological diversity. They are long-lived, reaching 80 years in age, and can reproduce until death. Tortoises mate in spring and nest April though July.  The eggs are generally laid in the sandy “apron” in front of the burrow.

The effects of habitat destruction, degradation, and human predation have greatly reduced the gopher tortoise population to the extent that it’s listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act throughout the western part of its range.

Alabama's USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced a partnership opportunity for landowners to voluntarily restore and protect habitat for the gopher tortoise through a new initiative called “Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW).”  This program targets at-risk wildlife species across the country, specifically the gopher tortoise in Alabama. 

“Landowners can receive financial assistance for a number of habitat management practices such as prescribed burning, which does not harm the tortoise,” said NRCS State Conservationist Dr. William Puckett.  "We want to work with landowners on a voluntary basis to help establish and preserve habitat for the gopher tortoise.”

Marshall Colburn in a typical longleaf habitat essential for gopher tortoise. Marshall Colburn in a typical longleaf habitat essential for gopher tortoise. Marking gopher tortoise nest
Marking gopher tortoise nest.
Gopher tortoise lays eggs in field.
Gopher tortoise lays eggs in field.

June 1, 2012