NCASI technical comments on status of the gopher tortoise

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a status review for the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) to determine whether the species should be listed as threatened in the eastern portion of its range (Federal Register Vol. 74, No. 173, Pages 46401-46406; September 9, 2009). The gopher tortoise occurs in the southeastern Coastal Plain from southeastern South Carolina to extreme southeastern Louisiana and is already listed as threatened in the western part of its range. The eastern portion of the range includes Alabama (east of the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers), Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Throughout its range, the species often occupies pine-grassland forests on well-drained sandy soils where gopher tortoises excavate burrows and feed primarily on understory vegetation such as grasses, asters, legumes, and fruit.

The status review was initiated in response to a petition submitted in 2006 by two environmental organizations, Save Our Big Scrub, Inc. and Wild South, who asserted that the tortoise is threatened by urban development, decline in natural pine forest, establishment of pine plantations, illegal harvest of tortoises for meat, a bacterial disease known as upper respiratory tract disease, inadequate protection by States, and other factors.

NCASI recently submitted data and technical comments to the Service regarding a variety of factors related to habitat conditions for the tortoise and results of tortoise surveys on commercial pine forests. The comments included the following key points.

  • There is a significant area of southern pine forest that could function as habitat for gopher tortoises. Almost 90% of total forest and pine forest within the range of the gopher tortoise is privately owned, and much of this is in family forests.
  • About 13% of owners holding 45% of family forests in states with gopher tortoises report that they have harvested timber in the last five years, and the overwhelming majority of landowners have no plans over the next five years to convert their lands to non-forest uses.
  • Many family forest owners appear interested in agency programs that might incentivize conservation of species such as the gopher tortoise. Multiple collaborative conservation programs relevant to the gopher tortoise are well-established in the range of the species and are applying millions of dollars promoting conservation activities that are likely to benefit the gopher tortoise on thousands of hectares.
  • Forest structure and proximity to gopher tortoise populations likely have greater influence on whether a site is occupied by tortoises than whether the trees were planted or not.
  • A survey by NCASI and state forestry associations in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama reveals that landowners in the range of the species commonly use silvicultural practices that have the potential to enhance habitat for gopher tortoises, including prescribed fire, chemical site preparation rather than mechanical site preparation, banding vs. broadcasting herbaceous weed control herbicides, and thinning.
  • Although in some locations within the range of the tortoise there are practical barriers to use of prescribed fire (a key tool for enhancing habitat for the tortoise), state forestry agencies report a significant amount of land is treated with fire. During 2009 alone, an estimated 1,250,526 hectares were treated with prescribed fire in counties within the range of the tortoise in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
  • Recent surveys of gopher tortoise burrows confirm the tortoises are found in working pine forests, including on sites where planted forests have been harvested and replanted multiple times.

At the conclusion of the status review, the Service will issue a 12-month finding on the petition, announcing its determination of whether or not the petitioned action is warranted.

Please contact Dr. Ben Wigley for more information about the NCASI technical comments and other NCASI activities related to this species.

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