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Teaming up to help the gopher tortoise

Prescribed burning helps longleaf pine forests thrive by reducing competition for longleaf pine tree

Prescribed burning helps longleaf pine forests thrive by reducing competition for longleaf pine trees and generating fresh understory plants that provide food for gopher tortoises.

Reese Thompson, a Georgia landowner, is using conservation to improve longleaf pine forests on his l

Reese Thompson, a Georgia landowner, is using conservation to improve longleaf pine forests on his land.

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The gopher tortoise makes its home in the longleaf pine forests of the Southeast.

By Ciji Taylor

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and several federal, state and local organizations are working together to help landowners create and restore habitat for the gopher tortoise.

Once a thriving population, over harvesting and loss of habitat has led the gopher tortoise to be federally listed as a threatened species in the westernmost part of its range and a candidate for listing in the remainder.

Named for its burrowing habits, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species in the Southeastern coastal plains extending from southeastern Louisiana to southwestern South Carolina. Burrows that can be 10 feet deep and 40 feet long are used by more than 360 other species and can offer protection from extreme temperatures, predators and fire. For example, the burrow’s relatively stable temperature helps the Eastern indigo snake, a federally threatened species, to survive the winter.

The gopher tortoise is one of seven at-risk species targeted in the NRCS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife partnership. WLFW helps producers make voluntary improvements to their land that benefits wildlife and their agricultural operations and allow USFWS to provide regulatory predictability.

“Since 80 percent of the gopher tortoise habitat is on private lands, we need more private landowners to enroll in conservation programs so habitat is available to prevent listing," said Jess McGuire, Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist. "It’s my job to offer technical assistance to landowners to help them understand the importance of restoring gopher tortoise habitat through practices such as prescribed burning, mid-story hardwood removal, and planting longleaf pine."

These practices encourage the growth of native ground cover, increase biological diversity, while improving property aesthetics. The programs are not only beneficial for the tortoise but for other wildlife, such as quail, she added.

Through a partnership with NRCS and GADNR, McGuire is one of five biologists that work with NRCS in Georgia. With their wealth of knowledge on wildlife and gopher tortoises, the biologists are a big help for the NRCS field offices and landowners.

“Landowners, and myself included, learn so much from these biologists. Most of the time the tortoises are underground and go unseen, so landowners get pretty excited when Jess uses a scope to locate a gopher tortoise in a burrow on their land” said Vontice Jackson, NRCS district conservationist in Georgia.

One excited landowner is sixth generation Georgian Reese Thompson, who believes it’s his responsibility to help bring back the state’s natural landscape.

“My mission in life is to restore the habitat the way it was before man got here and changed it,” Thompson said.

Through WLFW, Thompson recently planted 200 acres of longleaf pine and did a controlled burn on 1,000 acres. Controlled burning helps improve the habitat by maintaining an open canopy and providing diverse ground vegetation – both needed by the tortoise. He is also restoring native wiregrass, one of the gopher tortoise’s favorite foods, to his land.

A lifetime member of the Gopher Tortoise Council, Thompson is passing on his passion for conservation of land and wildlife to his children.

“I gave my son and daughter some land, and they enrolled in some wildlife conservation programs. I’m trying to do my part and helping start the next generation off on the right foot,” he said.

Several different organizations have given financial or technical assistance to Thompson, and he considers this the contributing factor of successes on his land and in the area.

“If you ever see a gopher tortoise sitting on a fence post, he didn’t get there by himself. I say that because if you see somebody managing their land right – being good stewards of the land – they didn’t do it themselves. They did it with the help of NRCS, DNR and other organizations like the Orianne Society and Longleaf Alliance,” Thompson said.

This team effort has made a difference in Georgia. Last year, the state enrolled almost 45,000 acres in conservation practices to help improve gopher tortoise habitat.

For more information on the gopher tortoise or conservation programs, please visit the NRCS website or your local field office.