Partnerships develop solutions for prevention of gopher tortoise injuries on Marco Island

July 22, 2022

With teamwork and ingenuity, more than 4-acres of gopher tortoise and burrowing owl habitat now has a buffer from danger. The stretch of South Barfield Drive on eastern Marco Island has a 30-mph speed limit, yet has been the location of more than 28 tortoise mortality events this year alone. Neighbors and friends of the patch of overgrown land behind Publix know that surveys show it holds burrows of almost 200 tortoises, bald eagles, and dozens of owls.

The group came together to devise a solution, although temporary, to help keep the tortoises safe. “This is construction or silt fencing,” said volunteer Nancy Richie, who after 35 years of working as an environmental specialist with the City of Marco Island until 2015, is familiar with taking action for the environment. “We’re putting it at about a six to eight-inch depth, burying the bottom edge, because gopher tortoises are burrowing animals,” Richie said. “This will have to be maintained, as you see around the island, for weather and wind. Hopefully, it’s going to redirect tortoises so they don’t want to cross the street. They’re crossing the street to go forage. Unfortunately, this road has become busier and busier. It’s vehicles versus tortoises.”

Volunteers uniting efforts on the project included partners from Audubon of the Western Everglades, Owl Watch and Gopher Tortoise volunteers, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s South Regional Gopher Tortoise Conservation Biologist, the City of Marco Island, Humble Bumble Backyard, Easy Street Handmade, Refined Powder Coating, and Media Blast, Sosa’s Lawn Service and a handful of concerned citizens.

Joanna Fitzgerald, director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital, helped lead the charge to deploy people and tools to trench and dig – six inches down to be sure the burrowing creatures are safe – and fill with silt fence intended to keep the tortoises from venturing across the four-lane road for grazing grass on the distant medians.

“Preventing injuries is an important part of our work at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital,” said Fitzgerald, who oversees the treatment of tortoise injuries from the island along with more than 4,000 animals per year. “Seeing a problem that is resulting in considerable pain, suffering, and loss of life and taking action that has the potential to mitigate the further loss of life of this incredible, threatened species was so rewarding. The fencing project is just one part of the solution, continuing to educate and raise awareness will be ongoing.”

According to Fitzgerald, this project serves as an example of actions other municipalities and property owners can take to protect wildlife, noting what can be accomplished when there are many concerned citizens who are engaged and willing to work hard together to protect native wildlife on Marco Island. 

The owners of the property that allowed the fencing to be installed are working with Conservation Collier to preserve the land from development moving forward. The fence was completed by the volunteers in only one day, Wednesday, July 6, alleviating, so far, numerous injuries to wandering tortoises. Ideally, there will be a more sustainable and long-term solution discussed once the property receives a permanent preservation designation.

“Having people from several different agencies and the community be so driven to find a solution to this problem and take action was amazing and inspiring,” Fitzgerald said. “Too often, the focus is placed on differing points of view, finding common ground and collaborating for the benefit of the tortoises in that location is truly an accomplishment to celebrate. Combining our strengths and coming together to work on this project brought awareness to the problem and resulted in taking actions to protect the tortoises in this area of Marco Island.”

Gopher tortoise crossing sign