We’re pleased to report that, after several weeks of delay to resolve final permitting issues, restoration work is now in “full swing” at Wildflower Preserve.
One of the first project activities has been protecting the onsite gopher tortoises. Gopher tortoises are listed as a “threatened” species in Florida and a special FWC permit is required when tortoises are present at a work site.
Burrows in work areas must be identified and excavated, and any tortoises found must be relocated. Trained gopher tortoise “authorized agents” from ESA Scheda surveyed the preserve and located four tortoise burrows that would be impacted by the restoration efforts.
Gopher tortoises sometimes have more than one burrow and the specialists thought that a couple of the identified burrows were not in active use because they did not see signs of recent activity around the burrow openings. As it turned out, gopher tortoises were found in only two of the four locations that were excavated. One of the other burrows contained lots of dried grasses, suggesting that it may have recently been the home for rats or other animals. (Over 350 different species are known to take advantage of the burrows the tortoises create!)
The process for excavating the burrows was interesting to observe. To start the excavation work, a long, flexible PVC pipe was inserted into the burrow entrance until it reached a solid point that indicated a change in direction of the tunnel. The pipe was left in place to help define the angle, depth and distance for the excavation work. A trackhoe with a protective blade-cover was used to carefully scrape the soil away above the burrow. The last few inches of soil above the tunnel were then dug out by hand. Once the end of the pole was reached, the excavation team looked for a change in direction of the tunnel, reinserted the pole, and the process was repeated. This cycle continued until the end of the burrow was located.
At Wildflower, most burrows are in slightly higher elevation areas, like old golf course greens, tees or spoil mounds. The higher elevations allow the tortoises to dig down and still keep their tunnels above the water table. For the deeper burrows that were excavated, the end of the tunnel was over four feet below the surrounding ground level!
The two gopher tortoises found by the excavation work (one quite large and one small) were placed in protective bins, driven to the far end of the preserve, and released where other suitable habitat was available. The agents dug out short starter burrows for each tortoise and set them inside. Black protective fabric fencing had been previously installed and buried below ground level around the site to influence the tortoises to remain at their new location.
LBC volunteer Bob Winter created a short video about the excavation work. Click here to see it on our YouTube channel.
We have a number of other gopher tortoise burrows at Wildflower. Most are located in the area we call Gopher Tortoise Meadow. Those burrows are outside of the restoration work area, but fairly close to areas that will be disturbed. To minimize chances that the tortoises may walk into the work areas while feeding, black protective fencing has been installed along the western side of their habitat.
Heavy equipment is now in active use at the preserve, clearing Brazilian Pepper and other vegetation in preparation for excavation work to start within a few weeks. Please be aware that Wildflower Preserve is closed for safety during the restoration effort! No visitation is permitted.
We’ll provide more updates as work progresses. Meanwhile, if you have questions, you can send us a note at Wildflower@LemonBayConservancy.org. Or, call the office at 941-830-8922.