Range-Wide Conservation Strategy for the Gopher Tortoise Now Available
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with and input from the States of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina, and the Wildlife Diversity Committee of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, recently released a Range-Wide Conservation Strategy for the Gopher Tortoise. The purpose is to guide public and private partners in proactive conservation of the tortoise, which is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act across most of its range.
In their joint letter announcing the start of this effort in August 2012, Leopoldo Miranda with the Service’s Southeast Region, and Dr. Elsa Haubold with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said “Together, we hope to preclude the need to federally list the gopher tortoise in its eastern range by taking conservation actions now and over the next several years.”
In the western portion of the range, where the species is listed as federally threatened, the goal is to recover the species so that one day it will not need federal protection.
The strategy outlines the highest priority conservation efforts needed to minimize threats to the tortoise. A key component is longleaf restoration efforts. As the strategy notes, “the range of the gopher tortoise is generally associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem.” The States and the Service recognize that conserving the gopher tortoise, means conserving longleaf forests.
The gopher tortoise, the only native tortoise found east of the Mississippi River, is considered a keystone species because more than 300 other species have been known to use the burrows they dig for shelter, including snakes, foxes, skunks and lizards.
Figure 1. Distribution of the gopher tortoise (FWC 2012). The vertical line in western Alabama shows the approximate boundary between the western (federally listed) population and eastern (candidate) population.