A team from Ecological Science Associates spent two days last week finding, tagging and relocating eight gopher tortoises from in the Sebastian Inlet District’s sand storage area, or DMMA, to a protective sanctuary in Osceola County. These protected tortoises occupied burrows in the berm around the DMMA and were moved in anticipation of the channel maintenance dredging and beach renourishment project that will store 30,000 cubic yards of beach quality sand in the DMMA for future emergency beach restoration.
Sebastian Inlet District worked closely with scientists from ESA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to conduct field surveys to identify potential burrows and find an ideal recipient site where the gopher tortoises would be permanently relocated and safe from the threat of development. In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as threatened and both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law.
Gopher tortoises live in coastal dune strands and longleaf pine forests, and are labeled a keystone species because their burrows are home to more than 365 other species like indigo snakes, Florida mice, gopher frogs, burrowing owls and Florida scrub-jay birds. Their burrows can be 8-12 feet deep and more than 40 feet long. These tortoises dig burrows to escape the heat and protect themselves from forest fires and above ground predators.
Gopher tortoises do not swim and are one of the oldest living animals on earth, living to 80 years or more. As adults, humans and development pose the biggest threat to these animals. On average, gopher tortoises are 10 inches long and weigh up to 10-12 lbs.
ESA’s senior scientists identified a total of 26 burrows for examination, not all were active, and ultimately, the team found eight gopher tortoises during the relocation process including two estimated to be less than a year old and 60 mm (one pictured here on a cellphone).
“Preservation of natural resources and environmental protection are key considerations for the District in its work,” said Martin Smithson, biologist and Administrator of the Sebastian Inlet District. “We have such a rich and diverse ecosystem at the Sebastian Inlet and we know from experience that we can carry out our state mandated projects in an environmentally responsible way.”
Relocation efforts mark the start of the District’s channel maintenance dredging and beach renourishment project. More information on that project can be found on this site, under the Projects tab, or call (321) 724-5175.
The Sebastian Inlet District was created in 1919 as an independent special district by act of the Florida State Legislature, and chartered to maintain the navigational channel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River. The Sebastian Inlet District’s responsibilities have grown to include beach re-nourishment and dune repair as part of a state mandated sand bypass system, erosion control, environmental protection and public safety. The Sebastian Inlet supports a rich and diverse ecological environment that is unparalleled in North America. The Inlet is vital not only to the ecological health of the Indian River Lagoon, but it is also an important economic engine for local communities in the region. Known as the premier surfing, fishing, boating and recreational area on the east coast of Florida, the inlet is one of only five navigable channels that connect the Indian River lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean.