Baby gopher tortoises return to the wild

Updated: Jun. 25, 2019 at 7:33 AM EDT
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WEBSTER CO., Ga. (WALB) - Baby tortoises have a second chance at life, all to help save the gopher tortoise population. Georgia designated the endangered gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) as the official state reptile in 1989.

“They’re like what’s this freedom," questioned Jessica Radich, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Warm Springs.

She’s been the one taking care of the sixty baby gopher tortoises over the past year.

John Jensen, Senior Wildlife Biologist, GA DNR (Source: WALB)
John Jensen, Senior Wildlife Biologist, GA DNR (Source: WALB)

The majority of the state endangered species were collected from a mine site in Brantley County located in Southeast Georgia and released into the wild on Monday.

“So they’re one and two year old tortoises, but they’ve been beefed up in captivity to be the size of a two and three year old which gets them a little bit over their vulnerable stage for predation," explained John Jensen, a Senior Wildlife Biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“They’ve been ready to go for awhile. And I’m excited for them. It’s a good start," exclaimed Radich.

These reptiles create burrows up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep.

This helps them and up to 300 other animals escape the heat of the summer, cold of the winter and even predators.

Jessica Radich, Fish Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Source: WALB)
Jessica Radich, Fish Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Source: WALB)

“So the gopher tortoise is considered the keystone species in this ecosystem because so many other animals rely on them," said Jensen.

When the DNR acquired the property a couple years ago there were only 20 gopher tortoises on the 4,300 acres.

Last year 60 gopher tortoises were rescued from Baker County. With the latest addition, there will be more than 140 tortoises to help the species grow.

“We’re trying to build a significant tortoise population to conserve the species statewide in a strategic way," said Jensen.

This effort is part of a larger statewide effort that's called the Georgia Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative.

“And we’re trying to protect, permanently protect, at least 65 populations around the state that have populations in excess of 250 animals," said Jensen, “which is kind of the benchmark for having a viable population long term.”

The gopher tortoise can live to be more than 100 years old.

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