Kathleen Allen is a seasonal staff member working with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation section.
When I tell people I work as a gopher tortoise technician, they either nod their heads knowingly or stare at me with a look that says, “I think I may have misheard you.” I have to explain a gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the state reptile of Georgia, and my team, the Tortoise Crew—as we are affectionately known around the office—surveys lands suspected to have viable gopher tortoise populations. A viable population means there are enough individuals in the area to guarantee the survival of the population. An area needs, at minimum, 250 adult tortoises to be viable.
Gopher tortoises are a keystone species. Keystone species play an important role in their environment. Other species depend on the tortoise and the burrows they dig for shelter. Many of the land managers of the areas we survey are looking to manage their lands to benefit gopher tortoises and, by association, many other important species that live alongside them.
We split each property into areas of good tortoise habitat. We then place lines, called transects, running from east to west over the suitable areas. A typical day starts with an early morning drive to the field and set up to walk transects. When we walk a transect, we walk three across and in a straight path. The person in the middle uses the GPS, and the other two look for burrows and aprons. Aprons are mounds of sand in front of the burrows that indicate a gopher tortoise has dug its home there. Once we find a burrow, we place a GPS point on top of it with data for the site and begin the long task of scoping the burrow. Scoping involves shoving a 25-foot scoping cable through sand to the back of the burrow—or until we spot a tortoise. For the most part, the cable is long enough to reach the back, but on rare occasions, even after we lay on our stomachs and stretch our arms down the entrance, we still cannot spot the tortoise. Those burrows are especially frustrating because we are always excited to find the tortoise at the end of the tunnel. If only we had Inspector Gadget’s extendo arms…
When I started this job, I knew I would be working from March to early September, which meant I would be working during the summer. What they did not tell me was how much I would sweat. I’m not just talking about your typical southern-Georgia hot day; I’m talking about wearing double-fronted pants while walking 10 miles a day with pounds of equipment slung over your shoulder. Long story short, I sweat buckets. The good thing is we get to walk through beautiful longleaf pine habitats with sandy soils. We spot plenty of other animals while we walk such as white-tailed deer, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and nine-banded armadillos. After a couple of hours of those sights, you almost forget it is 95 degrees out! Almost.
Even with all of the literal blood, sweat and tears that go into this job, I love what I do. I love being able to work outside. I love all of the wildlife we get to see. I love knowing the work I do is used to help prevent a keystone species from becoming threatened. I went into this career because I wanted to use my education to make a difference, even if that difference means protecting just one more gopher tortoise population.