If you’ve ever spent time walking through the open pine forests along the coast from South Carolina to Louisiana, you’ve probably noticed the distinctive burrows of gopher tortoises. Tortoises typically dig burrows that are best described as a half circle, rounded on top and flat on the bottom, not unlike the shape of the tortoise itself. Once you recognize this telltale shape, they will be easy to distinguish from armadillo burrows, which are rounded.
Over 300 different species of wildlife have been found using, or living in, the burrows of gopher tortoises. Snakes find cool shade in the burrows during the heat of the summer and many animals may seek their shelter when a fire burns through the forest. Of course, the burrows are important for the tortoises themselves, they provide safe refuge during the inactive winter months and nesting often occurs right outside the entrance, on a mound of sand called the apron. Males may also periodically visit the burrows of nearby females in attempts to court them.
Due primarily to habitat loss, gopher tortoise populations are decreasing throughout their range. Much of the longleaf pine forest has been developed and paved over. A large portion of the remaining forest is managed without fire; without periodic burns, hardwood trees invade these pine forests and it quickly becomes too overgrown and shaded for tortoises.
Tucked away in their underground refuges, tortoises could do without the debate over what to do with their dwindling habitat. They’d rather keep to themselves and eat their leaves in peace. Unfortunately, they haven’t always been safe in their burrows.
Although tortoises are charismatic animals and popular with the public, another species uses their burrows that are not: rattlesnakes. Tortoise burrows are excellent shelter for diamondback rattlesnakes during the winter. They use the burrows as a safe place to hide during cold weather when they are inactive.
In these burrows, rattlesnakes are vulnerable to snake hunters. Several rattlesnake roundups still exist in the South; events where local snakes are collected and brought to show the public. Apparently rounding up animals and killing them still draws a show, although you won’t find me watching or supporting it by buying a ticket.
In any case, a popular method of catching rattlesnakes is to pour a small amount of gasoline down a hose and into gopher tortoise burrows. The gasoline vapors do not circulate and the rattlesnakes emerge for fresh air. Groggy and full of poisonous fumes, the rattlesnakes are easily bagged. Tortoises, on the other hand, don’t leave their burrows after they’re gassed; the gas fumes may damage their lungs and lead to death. They may never leave the burrow again. This practice of gassing burrows was also suggested to be a major threat to indigo snakes, another animal that used burrows as shelter and are now a federally threatened species.
Gassing burrows is incredibly destructive and damaging to the environment, it is known to kill and injure many animals of our southeastern pine forests. That it was primarily undertaken just to catch snakes to kill them makes it particularly distasteful. This practice is illegal in Georgia and Florida, although it is likely that some individuals secretly continue to degrade our shared natural resources for their personal benefit. Unbelievably however, gassing tortoise burrows has been perfectly legal in Alabama. That is, it was legal until last month when the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board unanimously voted to outlaw the practice.
Kudos to Alabama for recognizing burrow gassing as an environmentally destructive practice with no redeeming use and moving to end it forever. Credit is also due to the individuals that fought to bring this issue to their attention.