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News Release

Announcing New Wildlife Conservation Efforts to Protect Gopher Tortoise Habitat

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Apply before April 30, 2012 cut-off date

Release No. 082012

Contact: Jeffrey Woods, 352-338-9515
Michael Bush, 352-338-9547

Preserves working lands and protects at-risk species

Gainesville, FL., March 27, 2012—The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Florida is currently taking applications for technical and financial assistance on a new innovative partnership approach to restore and protect the habitat for targeted threatened and endangered species, while also helping other vulnerable and game species. Florida landowners can sign-up for assistance to help manage and restore habitat for the gopher tortoise. Applications are accepted year-round but eligible applications received by the application cutoff date of April 30, 2012 will be assigned a priority and ranked as needed. Applications within the priority habitat areas will receive highest consideration.

The announcement of the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership, recently revealed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, follows the White House Conference on Conservation that spotlighted community-driven conservation efforts as part of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Funding for assistance will be through the USDA’s Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP).

“Nearly two thirds of all species listed as threatened or endangered have populations on private lands,” said NRCS state conservationist Carlos Suarez. “This partnership uses innovative approaches with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to restore and protect priority habitat areas for the gopher tortoise."

Under this strategy, Federal, state and local wildlife experts jointly identify at-risk species that would benefit from targeted habitat restoration investments on private lands. Using the best available science, the partners will prioritize restoration actions on a large regional scale to focus assistance where it is needed most. In return for voluntarily making habitat improvements on their lands, the Federal government will provide landowners with assurance that they will not be asked to take additional regulatory conservation actions.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will jointly prepare species recovery tools such as informal agreements, safe harbor agreements and habitat conservation plans to provide regulatory certainty to landowners. The intent is to continue this targeted species recovery work beyond this year. In Florida, the targeted species, gopher tortoise, is a threatened wildlife species and both the tortoise and its burrow are protected by state law. Habitat destruction is a significant threat. Gopher tortoises are long-lived reptiles that occupy upland habitat throughout Florida including sandhills, pine flatwoods, scrub, scrubby flatwoods, dry prairies, pine-mixed hardwoods, and coastal dunes which have historically been maintained by periodic wild fires. The tortoises have adapted to frequent fire occurrences by digging burrows deep into the sandy soil. When fire is suppressed, small trees, shrubs, and brambles begin to grow making it difficult for the gopher tortoise to move around and eventually shade out the low growing plants that gopher tortoises eat.

Interested producers and landowners in Florida can enroll in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office. NRCS funds from WHIP will share the cost of conservation practices with landowners. All eligible applications received by the application cutoff date of April 30, 2012 will be assigned a priority and ranked as needed. If funds are available a second ranking cut-off date will be May 30, 2012.

For 14 years, WHIP has worked to protect, restore or develop fish and wildlife habitat for many species, including those considered at-risk. Since 2003, about $310 million has been committed to 23,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to provide wildlife treatments on four million acres of private working lands.

Additional information on NRCS, conservation assistance, and programs is available on the web at www.fl.nrcs.usda.gov  or at your local USDA - NRCS office. To find the nearest office go to your telephone directory under “U. S. Government, Department of Agriculture”, orhttp://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app.

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