Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.S.

Degree Granting Department

Biology (Integrative Biology)

Major Professor

Henry R. Mushinsky

Co-Major Professor

Earl D. McCoy

Keywords

Cattle Grazing, Cow/Calf Operation, Florida, Gopher Tortosie, Pasco County, Translocation

Abstract

Many Gopher Tortoise populations are in steep decline throughout Florida, and various measures have been attempted to curb the trend. One such measure is to relocate tortoises to protected recipient sites on private lands. The majority of private lands in Florida are used for cattle, however, production and the effect of cattle production on tortoises is not known. Here, I tested six parameters of tortoise behavior by monitoring 1403 gopher tortoises released at the Barthle Brothers Ranch, Pasco County Florida, between August 2009 and December 2012. The parameters tested were (1) burrow density, (2) burrow spacing, (3) burrow relocation, (4) body condition, (5) individual growth rate, and (6) recruitment (addition of young to the population). I used telemetry techniques to observe movement and burrow placement as it related to cattle activity and burrow impacts, and collected morphological data to determine changes in body condition and growth. I used burrow surveys and analyzed movement patterns to interpret the propensity for tortoises to place burrows where cattle may or may not congregate. Lastly, I investigated recruitment of juveniles into the population and followed the mortality of resident and relocated tortoises in all treatment plots. I found that burrow density, distance moved when relocating to new burrows, and avoidance of cattle were not distinguishably different within or between the plots. Burrow relocation, however, was more frequent outside the exclosures. The change in body condition did not differ between males and female or resident and relocated individuals. Females within the exclosure did not grow at a rate different than those outside the exclosure although translocated females grew faster than resident females. Densities of non-adult burrows inside the exclosures were not different then densities outside the exclosure. Eleven percent of tortoises relocated to the ranch died during the project. Although we have no evidence that cattle and tortoise cannot successfully coexist, a number of circumstances prevented rigorous testing of our hypotheses, predominately the failure of the silt fence used to enclose the treatment plots. Using a trespass-proof perimeter fence would allow a better assessment of the actual interaction between the cattle and tortoises and may shed new light on the lack of recruitment and the decline of juvenile tortoises relocated to the ranch. Without recruitment of individuals back into a population, or the persistent of reproducing adults within the population, any efforts to curb the downward trend in gopher tortoise numbers by relocating tortoises to actively grazed pasture is futile.

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