Florida is a great destination for nature and wildlife enthusiasts. Hiking trails abound, and wildlife can be found all year round, even in the winter. Spend lots of time in the woods and there’s no telling what you’ll see. Raptors, reptiles, deer, and all sorts of critters roam Florida’s forests. If you’re quiet enough, you can see a wide variety of animals. Every once in a while, you might even bump into a gopher tortoise.

Gopher tortoises are an ancient species that have meandered the earth for millennia. These land animals can be found throughout the southeastern U.S. and scrub, pine, and coastal dune areas in all 67 Florida counties. Because of their impact on the environment, they are referred to as a keystone species. More than 350 other animals share gopher tortoise burrows. Many animals use them to hide from predators and to lay their eggs. Without their burrows, small rodents and several snake species would die off.

Gopher tortoises were listed as endangered or threatened species many years ago. Habitat destruction is still the greatest threat to their survival. New home construction and urban sprawl are contributing to a dramatic decline in gopher tortoise populations even today. On the rare occasion you find one of these creatures in the woods or spot a burrow, let them be. It’s ok to help a gopher tortoise to the other side of a busy road as long as you’re not putting your own life at risk but that’s it. Admire them from a distance and let them enjoy their life for as long as they can.

(Gopher tortoise winking)

Although most of the gopher tortoise population lives in Florida, I haven’t run into many. Because they spend most of their time underground, sightings are few and far between. The handful of times I have spotted gopher tortoises were all at Lake Lizzie Conservation Area in St. Cloud Florida. This place is prime gopher tortoise habitat. The ground is perfect for burrowing and the population seems to be thriving. I spotted a small gopher tortoise a few years back and ran into three just the other week hanging out on the dirt road leading in. Since then I’ve seen two more traipsing around the woods and on the trail. Life seems to be looking up for gopher tortoises in St. Cloud Florida right now. I hope it stays that way.

For more info on Gopher Tortoises and to find out what you can do to help conservation efforts, check out MyFWC.com and visit the education corner.