By George StringhamJanuary 7, 2019
DONALSONVILLE, Ga. - Not far from the rumbling of trucks and within earshot of the grinding of woody debris left behind by Hurricane Michael, a hard-shelled reptile emerged from a burrow hole in a tree line adjacent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers debris management site near the airport in Donalsonville to see what the commotion was about.
Thankfully, USACE staff overseeing and managing the site recognized the out-of-sorts creature and notified Natalie McNair, the Corps' environmental compliance specialist responsible for the environmental aspect of hurricane debris removal operations in southwest Georgia.
"It was first pointed out to me by Bob Karlen, our quality assurance supervisor at the airport site" said Blake Tillery, the Corps' resident engineer for debris removal the area, referencing the Donalsonville Airport debris management site. "It looked like it had some special markings on it. We took photos and contacted Natalie [McNair] to see what she wanted us to do."
Karlen's background as a natural resource specialist at his home office at Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River near Chamberlain, S.D., was put to the test.
"We did a search of the area to see if we could locate any more borrow holes," Tillery explained. "We were familiar with the habitat tortoises like, so that helped guide our search area. In the end, we didn't find any more burrows."
McNair instructed them to monitor the tortoise and prevent them from being struck by vehicles while she contacted Georgia Department of Natural Resources, or Georgia DNR, for guidance.
"The DNR told us that the tortoise is on the threatened species list in the state of Georgia," said McNair. "They instructed us to construct a 20-foot standoff barrier between the burrow holes and the road and to station a monitor at the site for traffic control."
Georgia DNR plans to conduct a site visit to assess the conditions and relocate the tortoise, or tortoises, if necessary.
Not only is the tortoise on the state's threatened list, but the 60 million-year-old species is also designated as the official state reptile. The burrow site near the airport isn't in its native habitat, now or before the storm, but that doesn't change their status. According to the Georgia DNR, this species of tortoise likes sandy soil for burrowing, sunlight and non-woody plants like grasses and flowering plants.
Even in disaster response mode, temporary debris management sites must adhere to local, state and federal laws to ensure minimal, un-reversible damage is done to areas where operations are being conducted. Throughout the response, Corps of Engineers environmental compliance specialists like McNair monitor activities at debris management sites for not just hazardous waste, but also, cultural resources and threatened creatures like Georgia's state reptile, the gopher tortoise.