It is a shy, forgotten cousin to the sea turtle, but the gopher tortoise needs protection, too, according to the S.C. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"Ridgeland used to be called Gopher Hill a long time ago," NRCS biologist Dick Yetter said, referring not to furry mammals but to the tortoises known for digging dens -- sometimes as long as 30 feet -- with their fat, shovel-like front legs.
The species, only found in the Southeast, is endangered in South Carolina and is on the federal watch list. The sandy-soiled, flat-leaf pine forests where they prefer to live have been reduced by 70 percent throughout the Southeast, Yetter said. Unlike loggerhead sea turtles, which lay up to 125 eggs, the gopher tortoise lays only four to seven. If that doesn't make the odds of its survival long enough, they take about 10 years to mature, Yetter said.
"They're so specialized," he said. "Once they don't have what they need, it's not like they're going to go for a hike to find something else."
The NRCS office in Ridgeland, which serves Beaufort and Jasper counties, works with residents who volunteer their land for use to protect endangered or threatened species. For the tortoises, federal grants and long-term habitat protection plans are available if there is proof the reptiles live on the property. Grants vary depending on the amount of land and work required to protect the property. Grant applications can be found atwww.nrcs.usda.gov and must be submitted by April 30 to Room 128 of the Ridgeland NRCS office at 7554 W. Main St.
Currently, the tortoises' oval-shaped dens have been spotted on only one property within the office's jurisdiction, according to NRCS conservationist Tria Yang. Three dens were discovered in southwestern Jasper County, Yang said.
The NRCS doesn't have an estimate of how many of the animals might live in Beaufort and Jasper counties, Yang said, but residents who volunteer their land to help protect the tortoise might aid in determining that.