In case you missed it, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has rolled out a new initiative: The Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard Recognition Program.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard program serves to recognize private landowners who enhance the habitat quality of their property and take steps to protect gopher tortoises and their burrows. These actions in turn benefit many other species that use the tortoise’s burrow for shelter and foraging and nesting habitat. Qualifying landowners are provided a certificate, informational packet, and a Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard sign to post on their properties. Through this program, FWC hopes to raise awareness about the contribution private landowners can make to the conservation of gopher tortoises in Florida.
Any landowner that shares a yard with a gopher tortoise can take steps to make the yard 'gopher tortoise-friendly' and become eligible for recognition. To apply for recognition, you must sign the Acknowledgement Form, provide contact and property information, and complete the Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard Checklist. Each application will be reviewed upon submission and landowners will be notified of application approval. Please note, however, that recognition of a 'gopher tortoise friendly yard' does not authorize gopher tortoise relocations onto the property; to conduct relocations or disturb the land in a way that impacts gopher tortoises or their burrows without a permit is a violation of Rule 68A-27.003, Florida Administrative Code. So far, over 170 landowners have been approved for recognition across 39 counties in Florida, with 14% and 9% of approved applications attributable to residents of Brevard and Charlotte Counties, respectively.
For those interested in recognition, a key step is to provide at least three high biomass producing plants sought by gopher tortoises (see the Gopher Tortoise Friendly Plant Guide for more information). When selecting forage species to plant on your property, keep in mind native forage is preferable to nonnative forage. Examples of native forage species planted by recognized landowners include saw palmetto (Seronoa repens), paintbrush (Carphephorus spp.), gopher apple (Licania michauxii), and prickly pear (Opuntia spp.).
Landowners are also encouraged to remove nonnative, invasive species through this initiative. Many landowners who have applied for and received this designation have indicated they’ve removed a wide variety of invasive, nonnative plant species from their yards such as Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia), air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), and rosary pea (Abrus precatorius). Removal of invasive, nonnative plants is beneficial to gopher tortoises, as these plants can otherwise displace the native plant communities found in suitable gopher tortoise habitat.
Likewise, the removal of invasive, nonnative wildlife can be crucial to achieving a ‘gopher tortoise friendly yard’. Examples of invasive, nonnative wildlife removed from the yards of recognized landowners include species known to impact gopher tortoises, their eggs, and/or burrows (i.e., iguanas, pythons, and tegus).
Additional steps to protect the tortoise and its burrow can involve installing a tortoise road crossing sign to alert drivers or flagging a burrow to prevent accidental tripping and unintentional impacts. Visit FWC’s signage webpage to learn more about where to buy road crossing signs. Responsible pet ownership is critical as well and ensures the safe coexistence of tortoises and the pets of landowners. For the landowners who cut grass on their property, it is also recommended to use a weed trimmer within 13 feet of the burrow entrance instead of driving heavy equipment, like a riding lawnmower. Mower blades should be set as high as possible above the ground to avoid injuring tortoises and machinery should be operated when tortoises are less active (i.e., during the warmer part of the day from May to October and the cooler part of the day from November to April). Lastly, landowners should consider securing their yard to prevent tortoises from burrowing in unsafe areas. Taking preventative measures to keep tortoises from establishing burrows in locations of concern can minimize conflict in the future.
In summary, it takes just a few simple but important acts to achieve a ‘gopher tortoise friendly yard’. Given that more than half of the land in Florida is privately owned and undergoing a high rate of development, Gopher tortoises need as many of these yards as possible. If you have not already, please consider participating in this new and exciting program so you too can become recognized by FWC for your contribution to gopher tortoise conservation!