This adult female gopher tortoise lives in the sandy soil habitat on Fort Benning.

FORT BENNING, Ga. - From 2,500 to 3,000 gopher tortoises call Fort Benning home. This particular tortoise is recognized in Georgia as a threatened species and thrives in the state's coastal plains, including Fort Benning with its areas of sandy soil, ideal for burrowing, said Mark Thornton, endangered species biologist for the Conservation Branch, Environmental Management Division.

A threatened species is one step away from an endangered species in terms of its danger of extinction, Thornton said.

On post, the tortoises are found mainly on the northern two thirds of the installation, including training areas such as Brittin Range, where gas chamber training is conducted.

All basic trainees are briefed about the tortoise before entering the area, said SFC Robert Frank, master trainer for General Subjects Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, which has oversight of the range.

"We are aware they're out there," he said. "We're training 200 Soldiers, averaging six days a week. Almost every day there is going to be (gas) chamber (training) out on Brittin Range."
Mission comes first, Frank said, but protecting the threatened species doesn't conflict with mission. Soldiers are instructed to leave any turtles or burrows alone and alert a cadre member.

"It is their habitat. They were here before us," he said. "We're just trying to conserve their environment, so that way they can continue to grow. I think if we protect the environment, they can make a comeback."

The animals are usually safe from Soldiers on foot since they spend most of their time underground, except during the breeding season from April to June, Thornton said. Training restrictions, such as prohibiting vehicles within 50 feet of a known burrow, protect the species.
In regards to Maneuver Center related construction, Conservation Branch officials try to remove the tortoises before construction, but if one is spotted after it starts, they're called in to pick up the animal, he said.

Gopher tortoises are relocated to fenced areas on Fort Benning until they establish new burrows; then the fences are taken down, Thornton said.

"The biggest problem with the gopher tortoise is loss of habitat," he said. "They love these high sandy soil areas and people love to put subdivisions on them, and that is what has caused the tortoise to become rare."

Because the species lives so long - more than 60 years, with one in 100 eggs surviving to adulthood - Thornton said they don't yet know if the population is growing or stable. However, they do know installations like Fort Benning, Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Rucker, Ala., have large populations of tortoises.

"There's a significant portion of the species on military installations," he said. "What the Army does can make a difference toward the recovery of that species. Being proactive with the management of the species could prevent it from becoming an endangered species."

Because of its burrows, which provide homes for various amphibians, insects and reptiles, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species. Its loss could directly influence scarcity of other animals, Thornton said.

Until now, the Conservation Branch has focused on protecting the species, he said, but it's moving toward "more intensive monitoring" to gather more data about the growth of the tortoise population.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16