- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

ADEL, Ga. — Gopher tortoises may be dwindling throughout the South, but you’d never know it from the royal treatment they get at Reed Bingham State Park in southern Georgia.

The prehistoric reptiles bask in the sun and dine on their favorite foods — green grasses and prickly pear cactus. The males attract mates by wagging their heads like bobbling dashboard toys.

Now the park’s managers are taking tortoise care to a new level. They’ve recruited more than 40 volunteers to count the tortoises, check their health, help protect their eggs from predators and help restore their longleaf-pine ecosystem.

“We’re setting an example not just for other state parks, but for private landowners,” said Chet Powell, the park’s interpretive ranger. “They can maintain the forest for gopher tortoises … and other creatures that are native to this ecosystem.”

Gopher tortoises, which dig sloping burrows up to 40 feet deep, are found in the sandy uplands of southern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi; most of Florida; and small portions of South Carolina and Louisiana.

They make up four remaining species of land turtles that originated in western North America about 60 million years ago and migrated to the Southeast. The others — the Texas tortoise, the Bolson tortoise and the endangered desert tortoise — are found in the Southwest.

Because of population declines, mostly from habitat loss, gopher tortoises are protected throughout their range by state and federal laws, and they are Georgia’s official state reptile.

Reed Bingham State Park, which covers about 1,600 acres near Adel, 200 miles south of Atlanta, is one of several parks in southern Georgia where visitors are likely to see gopher tortoises in the spring and summer.

During the winter, the tortoises sleep in their cozy burrows, safe from predators, fires and freezing temperatures. The burrows also provide a haven for about 360 other creatures, including rattlesnakes, frogs, mice and bugs, that might not survive without the underground condos.

On Reed Bingham’s Gopher Tortoise Nature Trail, visitors may see the males jousting for dominance during the mating season, although they seldom harm each other. Visitors may also see them trying to woo females by bobbing their heads and thumping their spade feet.

Elizabeth Rowe, a kindergarten teacher at St. John’s Catholic School in nearby Valdosta, recently visited the park with 24 students. They learned about tortoises from Mr. Powell, and on a boat ride, they saw alligators.

“It’s the only chance some of these children have to experience nature,” Miss Rowe said. “They were fascinated by how they moved, how they lived and how they ate.”

Reed Bingham embarked on its tortoise enhancement project about four years ago. Mr. Powell and other rangers noticed that armadillos were threatening tortoise propagation by destroying eggs. The South American invaders have also been a threat to sea turtle eggs along the coast.

“We realized that we were losing 80 to 90 percent of our eggs,” Mr. Powell said. “It was a loss rate that was almost unbelievable. It was mainly due to the introduction of armadillos. Skunks and raccoons eat them, too, but they are part of the natural system. There are checks and balances.”

Park workers begin gathering tortoise eggs after they are laid in the spring, marking the sites with global-positioning devices and hatching eggs in a protected area. “The hatchlings are released exactly where they would have popped out of the egg,” Mr. Powell said.

With the predator threat eased, park rangers look for other ways to nurture the tortoise. Workers thinned trees on about 11 acres last year, which will be replanted with longleaf pines and wire grass to create the ideal habitat. They also set periodic fires to keep hardwoods and other vegetation from choking the forest.

Trained for the first time this year, the volunteers will help restore the habitat and trudge into remote areas to count turtles and search for undiscovered colonies. The park has five known colonies, including one with more than 60 tortoises.

The volunteers, ranging in age from college students to senior citizens, also will check the reptiles for diseases, and in September and October, they’ll help gather eggs buried in the sand by female tortoises.

“What we’re doing now is going to benefit the animals and the people who enjoy the animals for generations,” Mr. Powell said.

• • •

Reed Bingham State Park: 542 Reed Bingham Road, Adel, Ga.; visit www.gastateparks.org/info/reedbing or call 800/864-7275 for camping reservations, 229/896-3551 for park office. Located six miles west of Adel on Georgia Highway 37 (exit 39 from Interstate 75); 14 miles east of Moultrie from U.S. Route 319; about 150 miles from Jacksonville, Fla.; and 90 miles from Tallahassee, Fla.

Gopher Tortoise Council: www.gophertortoisecouncil.org/tortoise.htm.

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