Creating tortoise poplulation a slow process

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Biologists hope last week’s release of 89 endangered gopher tortoises – the largest release by the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center’s environmental department – can increase the animal’s survival rate in the wild by 70 to 85 percent.

The release was part of The Nature Conservancy Camp Shelby Field Office’s gopher tortoise Head-start project developed to study the federally threatened and state endangered species. Camp Shelby harbors the largest known population of gopher tortoises in the western portion of the animal’s range; however, few tortoises reach adulthood in this area.

Biologist Jim Lee, who directs the gopher tortoise program, said the project is geared toward eliminating the species from the endangered list.

“The overall goal is to get them off the endangered species list by creating a population,” he said. “What the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines as a population is 250 adults within about 250 acres. At Camp Shelby as of about 2004, there are about 1,500 tortoises. Even though we have the numbers here at Camp Shelby, they are not all interacting within the required space. So we don’t have a population.”

The tortoises were released in a wooded area on the southern boundary of Camp Shelby. Representatives from agencies involved in the program assisted with the release of the tortoises and documented the event.

Head-start and the release of gopher tortoises on Camp Shelby and the DeSoto National Forest is a collaborative effort among The Nature Conservancy, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Forest Service, the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program, the Mississippi Military Department and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks.

Lee said the habitat in the DeSoto National Forest where the tortoises were released had been kept up by forestry and military officials.

“The habitat has been really well maintained by the Forest Service and the military over the years,” he said as the tortoises were released in three separate groups. “The habitat looks really nice.”

Commander of Camp Shelby, Col. Bobby Ginn, Jr., said the Head-start project is important.

”The gopher tortoises are an endangered species and we have a vested interest in helping the gopher tortoises to survive,” he said before the release. “We will continue to do that. Back in 2014, we started the Head-Start Program here and this is the biggest release since we established this hatchery here. This is a big deal because of the number of gopher tortoises in this area. We will continue to work with the agencies to make this work and they have been very supportive of this program.”

Ginn said the military maneuvers do not interfere with the Head-start tortoise program.

“People ask me all the time about the high-octane training environment that we have here and how do we make it work with the endangered species,” he said. “I tell them that this is a program that we support and is growing every day. We can train soldiers and take care of endangered species; they can coexist here at Camp Shelby, for sure.”

Gopher tortoises live in longteaf pine habitat in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. They are a keystone species, meaning that many other species rely on the gopher tortoise for survival and their loss would have a significant impact on ecosystem health. More than 360 species have been documented using gopher tortoise burrows.

Female tortoises lay 3-15 ping pong ball-sized eggs in May and June that typically take around 75-90 days to hatch. In addition to habitat loss and alteration, predators such as snakes, birds, mammals and red fire ants can affect tortoise eggs and hatchlings.

However, as the tortoises get larger, the number of potential predators decreases and tortoise survival rate increases. Lee raises tortoises until they reach 2 years old to increase the state’s tortoise population.