The four hunters spaced themselves about 20 feet apart, in a straight line, poised at the edge of a wall of palmettos and gallberry. The leader of the group, pointing on a map, gave quick directions about his plan of attack: straight through, in a grid, a few hundred yards out, then reposition and come back, covering an adjacent swath of land.
The group crashed through the dense foliage, guiding themselves along the line of sparsely planted slash pines that stretched into the distance. The hunters, because the air was cool, were spared the usual swarms of biting insects and poisonous snakes, but the brush made it hard to see what they’d come for.
“It’s like swimming through a sea of green,” said Vic Doig, the group’s leader, biologist and fire management officer with the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. “No self- respecting gopher tortoise would be caught dead in here.”
Doig was right but only because the tortoises were tucked away safely in the warmth of their crescent-shaped burrows, the very things the group set out to find.
Nine volunteers showed up last week to help find gopher tortoise burrows in a section of the refuge set to be logged as early as February.
About 600 acres, according to Forrester Daniel Barrand, will be thinned of pine trees, burned and replanted in an effort to restore the habitat. Restoration is good for wildlife, including the gopher tortoise, he said. But the process of logging the trees can be detrimental to the survival of the species.
Within the area set to be logged, refuge management has designated special areas, known as logging decks, where heavy equipment and machines can load timber onto trucks.
“It’s all gotta’ come to one point,” Barrand said. “If you’ve ever watched one of those logging shows on TV, you know it’s a high-traffic area.”
The refuge, working from GPS data, plans to establish 20 to 30-foot buffers around the burrows, a measure Doig said is being stepped up due to the fact that the club-footed reptiles, living up to 40 years, were placed on a federal threatened and endangered species waiting list a few months ago.
“We have to take extra precautions with this species now,” Doig said.
But there’s no guarantee the tortoise, in the eastern portion of its range — Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina — will ever officially make it on the list. Representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say it could take years because of lack of funding.
Gopher tortoises in more western parts of the country have been federally protected for more than 20 years, and the state of Florida put the tortoise on its list of threatened species in 2007. State wildlife managers, that same year, banned the practice of burying the creatures alive, an act sometimes undertaken by developers. Development and shrinking habitat are prime factors contributing to the decline of the cold-blooded herbivores. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission now requires developers wanting to build in the tortoise’s habitat to get a special permit and agree to relocate any tortoises found. It’s illegal to kill, move or mess with the eggs of gopher tortoises without a permit.
“They’re really important ecologically, so we go to great expenses to protect them,” Doig said.
The tortoises, which can reach a length of about 15 inches, are considered a “keystone species,” meaning they provide habitat for more than 300 other species, according to the service. Sometimes being up to 20 feet long and typically between 5 and 10 feet deep, the gopher tortoise burrows provide shelter for creatures such as the protected indigo snake and the Florida mouse.
Carmelo Echevarria, of Bronson, was the first in the group to find a tortoise burrow last week. He said it makes him feel good to volunteer. It’s a way for him to give back.
“I’m retired and I just can’t be sitting in a rocking chair all day long,” Echevarria said. “I like being outdoors. I’m concerned about conservation, but I also see it as a way of exercising.”
Echevarria found several of the eight burrows found by one of two groups to volunteer at the refuge. Another group, working a different section, found 19.
And the refuge will make some money, about $500,000, from selling the timber, according to Barrand. A lot of that money, anywhere from about $60,000 to 90,000, will go back to both Levy and Dixie counties, where the refuge is located, to help offset property tax fees, he said. And local logging companies will get first crack at the timber.
“The biggest benefit for us is, it’s not really the income, it’s the habitat that gets managed here via this process. We’re trying to mimic the natural system as best we can.”