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Stantec Q&A: Florida Gopher Tortoises have a friend in Craig Schmittler

As development encroaches on the turf of many native species, it’s important to protect existing habitats or develop new ones for these special creatures. I am fortunate to be able to do that in my day job, and through volunteer work.

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Developing, maintaining, and protecting the habitat for gopher tortoises, a threatened species. 

Tortoises and turtles have always been one of my favorite species. So when I had the opportunity to volunteer at Bonita Springs Nature Place, I was happy to put my environmental background to good use. 

Q: Why are gopher tortoises so important?

A: Gopher tortoises vary in size from hatchlings slightly larger than a flattened golf ball, to adults that weigh over 20 pounds. These prehistoric creatures are the only tortoise species found in Florida (click here for the difference between a turtle and a tortoise). For years, they were a common food source for the people in the Panhandle and were listed as a species of “Special Concern.” But as development encroached further into their habitat, in 2008, they were uplisted to a Threatened Species. This means that anyone who works with them must be an authorized agent through Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation to ensure they know how to handle the tortoises and identify and excavate their burrows.

Q: What types of work do you perform for the Nature Center?

A: I help in several areas. As the City adds facilities and nature trails, I review site plans to ensure they proceed in a way that doesn’t damage or disturb the tortoise habitat. Routine maintenance can also cause issues when mowers cave in the tortoise burrows. So, I’ve identified and marked the burrows to allow mowing in areas that won’t impact the tortoises. Stantec is periodically retained to remove nuisance and exotic vegetation from the tortoise preserve to encourage growth of the native grasses and vegetation the tortoises prefer.

Q: Tortoises seem special to you.

A: Tortoises and turtles have always been one of my favorite species. When I was growing up in Illinois we always stopped and picked up the box turtles we found crossing the road. I had a backyard pen where I kept them all summer. Come winter I’d take them out in the woods and turn them loose again. And the next summer I’d start all over again. I also had a wading pool full of little aquatic turtles I’d catch in the park and keep until fall.

Q: How many tortoises are on the site?

A: At last count around 24 and the population is growing because people are aware of the Nature Center, they are actually dropping the tortoises over the fence when they find them on the roads. We try to discourage that for many reasons, but it’s better than having them killed on the roads.

Q: How does your job with Stantec relate to your volunteer work?

A: I was the first ecologist hired by by Stantec 1987, when regulatory permitting for land development began to become a much more involved process. There is no place in the US with the variety of listed species and habitat types that you find in Florida because of the subtropical climate. We do species surveys for red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, Florida scrub jays, fox squirrels, burrowing owls, bald eagles, Florida panthers, black bears, and banded tree snails, just to name a few. There are also the listed plants and protected habitat types in different counties in Florida that also have special permitting requirements.

Q: It sounds like you enjoy your job.

A: I enjoy the outdoors and wildlife I encounter and I’m fortunate to have the job I do. A lot of people with office jobs would probably enjoy some of this type work and the wildlife I see in the field. But they wouldn’t like the hot summer days or the neck-deep water we also have to deal with on some projects. It’s a matter of enjoying what you do and having the right experience or training. 

Authored by Craig Schmittler

I was the first ecologist hired by by Stantec 1987, when regulatory permitting for land development began to become a much more involved process.

These prehistoric creatures are the only tortoise species found in Florida.

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