Feds seek info on gopher tortoises

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By The Staff

Residents of Levy County can play an active role in determining if the gopher tortoise gets placed on the endangered species list, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency is conducting a 90-day study to see if the tortoises, which are currently listed as “threatened” in Florida, should be reclassified at the federal level.

According to the FWS website, the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 classifies fish, wildlife and plants facing the possibility of extinction as “endangered”. “Threatened” species refers to plants and animals that are at risk of becoming “endangered” in the near future.

Chuck Underwood, a spokesperson for FWS, said the study—called a status review—is asking for any information that may lead to a better understanding of the gopher tortoise throughout its range.  However, information should provide more than just comments in support of or opposition to the action, according to FWS.  And information must be received no later than Nov. 9.

Underwood said even though the gopher tortoise is protected in the state, “federal protection will only strengthen that protection.”

The tortoise, according to Underwood, is important because it’s known as a “keystone” species, meaning that many animals depend upon the tortoise to provide shelter in the form of its burrow.

“If they fall or go extinct, there’s a potential for others to go extinct,” he said.

He said there are about 200 known species of animals that are dependent upon the burrows, which can be 52 feet long and 23 feet deep.

One such species, according to Underwood, is the indigo snake, which is also listed in Florida as “threatened”.

According to FWS, the indigo snake, the largest snake native to the U.S., began its road to decline when people began over collecting the reptile for the pet trade and when rattlesnake hunters inadvertently killed them while gassing gopher tortoise burrows—an outlawed technique known to flush rattlesnakes from the burrows they often seek refuge in.  Ironically, indigo snakes, which are nonvenomous, are known to prey on rattlesnakes.

The gopher tortoise, according to the University of Florida’s IFAS Extension website, is in decline because of urban development, agriculture, poor forestry practices, road deaths, disease and the practice of the animal being collected for food.

People having data on gopher tortoises in their area are encouraged to submit their information to www.regulations.gov or by mail to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R4-ES-2009-0029; Division of Policy Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.