Species Spotlight: Protecting the gopher tortoise and its ecosystem

The gopher tortoise is an upland tortoise species native to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Gopher tortoise habitat consists of extensive burrows dug by the tortoise, primarily in longleaf pine forests, pastures and coastal dunes. Gopher tortoise burrows provide habitat for more than 350 other species, making the tortoise a keystone species for the ecosystems where they live.

In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) listed the gopher tortoise as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Louisiana, Mississippi and the western portion of Alabama. In 2011, the Service determined that the gopher tortoise was a candidate for listing in the remainder of its range.

This installment of Species Spotlight examines the ongoing voluntary conservation efforts by state, federal and private partners to recover the species where it is currently listed as threatened and preclude the need to list more of its range.

CONSERVATION ACTIONS

The primary threats to the gopher tortoise include habitat loss and habitat alteration from land development. Additionally, certain forestry practices in longleaf pine forests can be harmful to gopher tortoises. Overly crowded forests and fire suppression can limit habitat and forage availability for tortoises, while site preparation for sylvicultural operations can destroy tortoise burrows and nests. Efforts to relocate tortoises to protected or undeveloped sites can also lead to road mortality, as gopher tortoises frequently migrate from areas where they have been relocated.

More than 80% of gopher tortoise habitat is located on private lands, making voluntary practices pivotal to the success of any conservation strategy. Numerous collaborative conservation programs encompassing federal, state, local and private parties have emerged to meet the challenge of recovering the threatened western portion of tortoise, while preventing the need to list the eastern population of the species.

In 2008, the Service entered a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) for the eastern population of gopher tortoise. The signatories of the CCA include the Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Forest Service, the fish and wildlife agencies of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The 2008 CCA established a cooperative, range-wide approach to tortoise conservation and management in the eastern portion of the tortoise’s range. The CCA is flexible and voluntary, allowing individualized conservation and management actions to be adopted at varying levels by individual partners. This CCA created the foundation of the first-ever collaboratively developed range-wide conservation strategy for the gopher tortoise.

The Service also established several voluntary Safe Harbor Agreements for listed western gopher tortoises and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances in the candidate eastern range. Further, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) added the gopher tortoise as a target species of the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership. NRCS offers technical and financial assistance to help producers on private land voluntarily conserve gopher tortoise habitat. Technical assistance is free to producers, and financial assistance allows producers to plan and implement a variety of conservation activities in gopher tortoise habitat such as prescribed fire, prescribed grazing, longleaf pine establishment and vegetation management.

RESULTS

Since 2012, the WLFW program has enabled producers to conserve or create more than 278,000 acres of longleaf pine forests. NRCS and state, federal and NGO partners continue to work to establish and manage longleaf pine stands, increase documentation and monitoring of gopher tortoise populations, and strategically implement landscape-scale habitat improvements for the tortoise.

The NRCS is also working with conservation partners to develop priority areas for conservation (PACs) to increase effectiveness of on-the-ground habitat conservation efforts. Through targeted conservation efforts in PACs, the Service, state wildlife agencies and NRCS are aiming to protect an additional 205,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat by the end of fiscal year 2018.

Additional research on gopher tortoise population trends and habitat needs is necessary. It is likely that the gopher tortoise may always require some form of active habitat management to maintain a healthy population. Because of the tortoise’s status as a keystone species, work to restore gopher tortoise habitat will benefit a wide array of other species. In total, 28 additional threatened and endangered species are dependent on longleaf pine forests and will benefit from gopher tortoise conservation efforts.

Species Spotlight, a case study series examining the challenges and opportunities in species conservation, is part of the Western Governors' Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative, the Chairman's Initiative of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

More in the Species Spotlight series: 

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