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Gopher tortoise
Gopher tortoise

Young gopher tortoises have yellow coloration that will eventually fade to tan or brownish gray.

The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is a beloved and iconic turtle species native to south Alabama. Gopher tortoises are so named because of the burrows they dig, which are typically 15 to 20 feet long and 6.5 feet deep. They are considered a keystone species because many other animal species have come to rely on these burrows as refuges. In fact, approximately 360 different species have been documented utilizing gopher tortoise burrows.

The only tortoise east of the Mississippi River, they are found in 26 of Alabama’s 67 counties. Gopher tortoises range across the southern parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. They are also found in most of Florida and slightly into Louisiana and South Carolina. Across their range they receive legal protection. In Alabama, gopher tortoises west of the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers are federally listed as threatened. This includes tortoises from Mobile, Washington, and Choctaw counties. All tortoises in Mississippi and Louisiana receive the same level of protection. Across the remainder of their range to the east, they are listed as threatened or endangered at the state level.

Gopher tortoises are strongly associated with longleaf pine ecosystems. As the acreage of longleaf pine has decreased across the Southeast, so has the number of gopher tortoises. Habitat loss is the primary cause for decline of this species and the reason for its protected status across its range.

Gopher Tortoise Day

Over concern for declining gopher tortoise numbers, the Gopher Tortoise Council was established in 1978. This group officially adopted April 10 as Gopher Tortoise Day in an effort to increase awareness about this important species and actions that can be taken to help conserve it. In 2018, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a proclamation that named April 10 as Gopher Tortoise Day across Alabama.

The following are additional resources on Gopher Tortoise Day and the work that is ongoing to protect this species:

How to Help

Gopher tortoise

A gopher tortoise outside the entrance to its burrow. The sandy area around the entrance is known as an apron.

There’s no better way to celebrate Gopher Tortoise Day than to do something to help these animals. There are many useful ways to assist in the conservation of this species. Many of these conservation actions coincide with already established landowner management objectives.

Prescribed fire. This is one of the most effective tools to manage land for gopher tortoises and many other wildlife species. Its use results in a greater diversity of herbaceous plants, which the tortoises feed on. It also increases access to suitable basking and nesting areas.

Timber thinning. This practice, already incorporated into many silvicultural management plans, has many of the same benefits as prescribed fire.

Mowing. If prescribed burning is not feasible at site, mowing or bushhogging can reduce the density of woody understory plants and improve gopher tortoise habitats. Be sure to set the blade height at 18 inches to avoid injury to tortoises.

Monitor roadways. It is legal to move a gopher tortoise from the road. However, people should only attempt this if conditions are safe for the person assisting the tortoise. Move the tortoise to the shoulder of whichever side of the road they were facing when first observed.

Support restoration efforts. More attention in the state is being given to restoration of longleaf pine forests. By supporting these efforts from groups such as The Longleaf Alliance with volunteer hours or donations, gopher tortoises will have more good habitat in which to live.

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