The roller chopping that is taking place at Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve is benefiting gopher tortoises and their habitat, according to officials.
Attention was brought to Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve after a resident saw roller chopping occurring on site during a hike, which raised his concerns about the well being of gopher tortoises.
Gary Morse, a spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife, said the removal of palmettos on Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve is a FWC-funded project that began specifically to benefit the gopher tortoise and its habitat. He said the mechanical removal of palmettos, along with prescribed fires, are some of the tools wildlife managers use to improve wildlife habitat for gopher tortoises and other species.
"Many of the various wildlife and plant communities here in the Southeastern United Sates are actually called Fire Dependent Communities, of which the gopher tortoise is a keystone species," Morse said. "This is certainly not illegal. This is managing wildlife habitat."
The roller chopping is designed to encourage the growth of lower growing herbaceous plants for the gopher tortoises to consume, which, in turn, can increase the population of tortoises in the preserve.
"Gopher tortoises need some open areas with low growing herbaceous vegetation," he said. "The removal of large clumps of palmettos encourages the growth of low herbaceous plants that provide food for gopher tortoises and many other species of wildlife."
He said when the plant community becomes older and the palmettos begin to overtake other vegetation, the necessary herbaceous plants needed for gopher tortoises to survive become sparse.
Morse said the use of large machinery for normal agricultural practices or for improving gopher tortoise habitats does not harm gopher tortoises even if it collapses the burrow entrance.
"They can dig burrows as long as 35 feet and as deep as seven feet," He said. "They are digging machines."
If the gopher tortoises burrow is collapsed, he said they have no problem re-digging the entrance for their burrow.
"Gopher tortoises are perfectly capable of digging themselves out when the burrow entrance is collapsed, which happens frequently enough in nature without man's influence," Morse said.
No collapsed burrows were found at Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve.
Morse encourages individuals who witness land clearing going on at any of the preserves to give them a call. He said it is not necessarily illegal and in some cases it is done to benefit the gopher tortoises and other wildlife.