CAMP SHELBY, MS. - Camp Shelby's Natural Resource Conservation team are working to keep the state endangered and federally threatened gopher tortoises alive. On Wednesday camp officials released 89 tortoises into the De Soto National Forest inside Camp Shelby.
The camp harbors the largest known population of gopher tortoises in the western portion of the animal's range. The release is scheduled as part of The Nature Conservancy Camp Shelby Field Office’s gopher tortoise Head-Start project developed to study the federally threatened and state endangered species.
In 2014, biologist James Lee, along with Camp Shelby’s Natural Resource Conservation team, developed an indoor tortoise Head-Start facility at the post to raise tortoises until they reach two-years old to increase the state's tortoise population. Lee says, “I hope a lot of them survive and start reproducing more tortoises.”
The study’s intent is to increase their survival rate in the wild by 70% to 85%. In the area, very few tortoises reach adulthood. According to Lee, in the wild gopher tortoises have a 10% survival rate simply because of their size.
Lee says, “The overall goal of head starting the tortoises is to raise them up to a size where they are less likely to be predated where a hatchling individual could be eaten by a lot of predators.”
Slowly, but surely biologists manipulated the tortoises' environment to get them bigger and stronger prior to their release.
“In order to get the large growth rates that we get in this building we do not allow the animals to hibernate" Lee says.
Reproducing has nothing to do with the age of the tortoises, but rather their size. For two years the tortoises actively ate all year long and the study surprised researchers.
Lee continues, “Initially we thought we would get two years of growth out of one year worth of growth, but in reality we are getting three or four years growth out of one.”
This is the third, but largest release of gopher tortoises that Camp Shelby's has done. Officials hope the gopher tortoises will be taken off the endangered and threatened list.
“Without the tortoise the ecosystem can fail as well, and having a good ecosystem is best for humans in general" says Lee.