Historically, more than 90 million acres of what is now the southeastern United States were covered by longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) savanna; today, only 3.4 million acres remain and most are fragmented and in poor condition. Scattered from Virginia in the north to the Florida peninsula in the south and Texas in the west, longleaf pine forests are some of the world's most biologically diverse ecosystems, and provide critical habitat for 29 threatened and endangered species, including the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).
The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species, and an indicator of longleaf pine ecosystem health. Gopher tortoise requires deep, well drained soils and an open understory that provides open sunny sites for nesting. Its burrows provide vital habitat and shelter for many endangered species. In addition, gopher tortoise serves as vector for seed dispersal, helping to maintain biological diversity. The effects of habitat destruction, degradation, and human predation have greatly reduced the gopher tortoise population to the point where gopher tortoise is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act throughout the western part of its range.
More than eighty percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate ownership. In 2011, NRCS launched the Longleaf Pine Initiative (LLPI) to focus technical and financial resources on increasing longleaf pine habitat. Under the initiative, NRCS and its conservation partners are helping private landowners enhance, restore and protect longleaf pine forests. Many of the conservation practices that support longleaf pine forest health also benefit the gopher tortoise, including: forest stand improvement, prescribed burning, restoration and management of rare or declining habitats, and tree/shrub establishment. Working Lands for Wildlife will provide additional resources to support gopher tortoise recovery, and incorporate a species-based indicator of the success of the Longleaf Pine Initiative.
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For more information:
Galon Hall, Working Lands for Wildlife Coordinator, (202) 690-2196
Working Lands for Wildlife will assist landowners voluntarily create, restore or enhance gopher tortoise habitat, increasing habitat connectivity, and support potential down-listing of the species.
643 Restoration and Management of Rare and Declining Habitats
645 Upland Wildlife Habitat Management
Protect, maintain, and restore longleaf pine forests.
Increase connectivity of existing gopher tortoise habitat.
Improve weed and invasive species management.
Promote use of government programs that provide incentives for development or restoration of habitat on private lands.
Outcomes and Impacts
Working Lands for Wildlife will complement the existing Longleaf Pine Initiative by providing targeted funding to help enhance, restore and protect gopher tortoise habitat, and increase landowner confidence that the conservation practices they implement will not harm the species or its habitat.