HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Conservationists last Wednesday released 89 gopher tortoises on to the De Soto National Forest following two years in a head start program where the federally-threatened reptiles were grown large enough to have a fighting chance at survival.
“The tortoises are significantly larger and better prepared to survive,” said Jim Lee, a biologist with the Nature Conservancy. “They are the size of six to eight year old tortoises. This much larger size gives them a better chance of survival. There are no snakes that can eat them. They are larger and stronger. They dig larger burrows. That’s added protection as well.”
Tortoise eggs were gathered from the De Soto National Forest, incubated, then raised as part of a head-start program run by the Nature Conservancy at Camp Shelby, the largest National Guard installation in the country. The hatchlings were allowed to feed and drink as much as they want in safety and receive 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. To date, they have released 162 tortoises onto the De Soto National Forest. Without help, less than one percent of gopher tortoises in south Mississippi make it to two years old.
It’s all part of a unique partnership that includes the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, the Mississippi National Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks and others.
The habitat is regularly treated with prescribed burns, an element favored by the longleaf pine ecosystem that includes the gopher tortoise, according to Ed Moody, wildlife biologist with the DeSoto Ranger District. The gopher tortoise is a keystone species that burrows into the soil, creating a friendly home for other species including the federally protected black pine snake and the threatened and endangered gopher frog.
“This is what it’s all about – turning them loose,” said Moody. “They’re now able to beat the odds.” Indeed, conservationists, believe the tortoises have a 70 to 85 percent chance of survival.