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Increasing Gopher Tortoise Habitat Through Working Lands For Wildlife Initiative

Conservation Showcase

 

 

Map of Alabama Gopher Tortoise focal area.

By Fay Garner, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS, Auburn, AL

Gopher tortoise populations are declining in the southeastern United States.  Their populations have decreased to the extent that they are a threatened species west of the Tombigbee River in Alabama, and in Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Some of the reasons for this decline include habitat destruction, inadequate regulatory action, improper use of herbicides, and the tortoises being killed on road ways or being killed for food by humans.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has targeted to help the decline in habitat. 

More than eighty percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate ownership.  A private landowner from Mobile, Alabama, Bob Pittman understands the significance of the survival of the gopher tortoise.  He has as many as 40 gopher tortoise burrows documented on his property.  He said, “Most of the landowners in this area can’t imagine not having gopher tortoise on their land.  We do everything we can to protect them.  When school students visit our land on field trips, we tell them of the importance of the gopher tortoise.”

Mr. Pittman had already established longleaf pine stands on his property, an important ecosystem for the gopher tortoise. NRCS launched the Longleaf Pine Initiative (LLPI) in 2011 to help landowners enhance, restore and protect longleaf pine forests.  Many of the conservation practices that support longleaf pine health also protect the gopher tortoise.  In the spring of 2012, the new NRCS Working Lands For Wildlife (WLWL) Initiative established practices to protect the gopher tortoise.  These practices include forest stand improvement, prescribed burning, restoration and management of rare or declining habitats, and tree/shrub establishment.   To achieve the open habitat conditions tortoises prefer, prescribed burns are generally needed every one to three years. 

Mr. Pittman signed up for the new WLWL Initiative and agreed to assist in helping protect the gopher tortoise by prescribed burning, firebreaks, herbaceous weed control, and upland wildlife habitat management. 

The WLWL works through a partnership with NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to combine expertise and funds through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) to provide additional resources to support gopher tortoise recovery.  It complements the existing LLPI by targeting funds to help enhance, restore and protect gopher tortoise habitat.  Additional species that benefit are wild turkey, bobwhite quail, deer, mourning dove, and rabbit. 

Dan Everson, the USFWS Deputy Field Supervisor of Ecological Services in Daphne, Alabama, said, “We have been working with landowners and other agencies for more than 10 years to increase this species and are working hard to determine the actual numbers and the locations of gopher tortoise around the state.”

Dr. William Puckett, NRCS State Conservationist, announced, “We made available over $3 million in conservation dollars for the restoration of habitat for gopher tortoise in Alabama.  Over 500 people applied for the initiative and 151 contracts were funded on 43,000 acres.”

Gopher tortoises are fairly elusive creatures.  Usually all you see are signs that they are in the area, such as burrows or bitten foliage.  They are known as a keystone species because they dig burrows that provide protection from temperature extremes and predators.  These burrows provide refuge for about 360 other species throughout its range.  Some of those species include indigo snakes, gopher frogs, Florida mice, skunks, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, lizards, frogs, toads, and many invertebrates.

The challenge for NRCS and USFWS now is to fine tune on-the-ground management and reach out to more private landowners, who can have a profound impact on recovery for all species in this ecosystem. 

Bill Pearson, Field Supervisor of the USFWS Alabama Field Office in Daphne said, "We are excited about our strong partnership with NRCS to conserve the iconic gopher tortoise here in Alabama.  We want to work with landowners on a voluntary basis to help the gopher tortoise endure on private lands. If we can do enough to conserve the species now, we can hopefully avoid the need to list it under the Endangered Species Act, our last line of defense.”

Landowners interested in protecting the habitat for gopher tortoise in the targeted area (see map) should visit their nearest USDA Service Center to determine eligibility. Individuals are not eligible for WLWL until they have completed the Farm Bill eligibility requirements.  Contact your local NRCS or Farm Service Agency Office to begin this process.   NRCS field offices are listed in the telephone directory under U.S. Department of Agriculture or on-line at http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov.

Agency working together for WLWL.


(l-r) NRCS State Conservationist Dr. William Puckett, US Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Field Supervisor Dan Everson, and NRCS State Wildlife Biologist Jeff Thurmond observe a gopher tortoise burrow

Bob Pittman values Gopher Tortoise.


Bob Pittman of Mobile County, AL, is aware of the value of gopher tortoise on his property and signed up for the Working Lands For Wildlife Initiative.

Thurmond shows gopher tortoise food.


A young longleaf pine is planted near a favorite food of the gopher tortoise, the prickly pear. The red fruit is shown by NRCS State Wildlife Biologist Jeff Thurmond.