New Plan To Conserve Gopher Tortoises

The USDA has a new conservation plan for the Southeast’s threatened gopher tortoise. On Amelia Island, this keystone species can be spotted in the sand dunes by the beach.

Recovery Of A Keystone Species

The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), is one of nine species to represent the USDA’s premier wildlife conservation program, Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW).

The gopher tortoise is a “keystone species.” Here in the state of Florida, they have a presence in all 67 counties. Their burrows are an “important refuges for 350 native species including threatened species such as the Eastern indigo snake, the burrowing owl and the gopher frog,” according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC).

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recently announced its new 5-year plan to conserve the Southeast’s threatened gopher tortoise by focusing on the conservation and restoration of its key habitat. (The full USDA news release further below).

“The fate of the gopher tortoise is linked to habitat quality, and efforts to conserve habitat on private lands will be critical to its continued survival,” states an August 27, 2020 news release from the U.S.D.A.’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Gopher Tortoises — Barrier Island Dwellers

Here on Amelia Island, FL gopher tortoises can be spotted by visitors to the beach. They’re commonly seen from beach walkovers, roaming about the dunes along the seashore. Or stationary at times, munching on vegetation. While walking along the elevated boardwalks crossing the dunes, careful observation may also reveal the burrows. One can spot trailing turtle tracks in the sand that sometimes lead to a burrow’s entry.

Gopher Tortoise, Amelia Island Beach Dunes. Photo
Gopher Tortoise At Burrow Opening, Amelia Island
Key Habitat — Longleaf Pine Forests

Gopher tortoises live in upland habitat in Florida. Besides dwelling within sand dunes along the beach, their key habitat is longleaf pine forests. They can be found in backyards and pastures around the Sunshine State. There are Florida laws protecting the gopher tortoise and its burrow.

Development & Loss of Habitat

The loss of gopher tortoise habitat as humans developed land in more recent times — the past century — has impacted this ancient, terrestrial turtle with ancestry dating back 60 million years.

Gopher Tortoise Habitat Amelia Island American Beach
Gopher Tortoise Habitat, Amelia Island’s Dunes (American Beach)
Gopher Tortoise Relocation Permits

In Florida, if a lot/parcel of land has this protected species living there, property owners must apply for a gopher tortoise relocation permit via the FWC before doing any land clearing or construction activity. (No work can be done within 25 feet of a gopher tortoise burrow.)

Authorized “gopher tortoise agents” are registered in the FWC permit system. After obtaining a relocation permit, the tortoises are then captured and relocated. Florida has a 160-page “Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines” document that can be viewed online (revised ten times since 2008, the latest revision in July 2020).

Drawn To The Sea

Odd as it seems, these turtles are also drawn into the ocean, near water’s edge. A gopher tortoise can be incorrectly identified by an unfamiliar beach goer, assumed to be a small sea turtle when seen entering or exiting the ocean. This seems to be a frequent occurrence on Amelia Island.

Gopher Tortoise On The Beach, Amelia Island
How To Identify a Gopher Tortoise

Gopher tortoises can be up to around 15 inches long, so they are much smaller than the most common type of sea turtle visiting Amelia Island (the loggerheads average around 36 inches). According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), “To distinguish gopher tortoises from sea turtles, simply inspect their limbs from a distance. Gopher tortoises have toes, with claws on each toe. Sea turtles have flippers with only one or two claws present on each foreflipper.”

How To Help — Report Tortoise Sightings

On September 8, 2020, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) implemented a new interactive web application for reporting gopher tortoise sightings. The state wants to give biologists “thorough and reliable data and promote science-based gopher tortoise conservation efforts.” In the Sunshine State, the public can help with conservation efforts by taking a photo and report Florida gopher tortoise sightings, along with an image, to the FWC.

USDA Launches Strategy to Continue Conserving the Gopher Tortoise and its Critical Habitat (News Release):

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released its new 5-year plan to conserve the Southeast’s threatened gopher tortoise by focusing on the conservation and restoration of its key habitat―longleaf pine forests, and fire will play a leading role in the efforts.

The initiative has already conserved 274,302 acres of gopher tortoise habitat since 2017, and the new plan’s goal is to conserve an additional 975,687 acres by the end of 2024.

“With Working Lands for Wildlife, we’re able to develop successful solutions for both wildlife and landowners,” said Acting NRCS Chief Kevin Norton, who introduced the new strategy in a conservation outcomes webinar on August 27, 2020. “In the case of the gopher tortoise, it’s about much more than this one species, since so many others, like insects, rabbits, and quail, greatly benefit from the restoration of the tortoise’s habitat.”

WLFW conservation actions are based on resource needs and generally prioritize the following:

  • Promoting increased use of prescribed burning
  • Improving vegetation management to include both timber stand and understory management
  • Establishing longleaf pine stands through plantings
  • Supporting prescribed grazing to manage gopher tortoise habitats in pine savannas and grasslands

WLFW worked with partners in 2016 to identify priority areas for conservation based on where gopher tortoises were known to occur, appropriate soils, and vegetation. Knowing these priority areas is critical for strategic conservation action. In 2017, NRCS released the very first implementation plan for WLFW-gopher tortoise, which set a goal of 205,000 acres of conservation practices to support gopher tortoise recovery but exceeded it by the end of 2018. By 2019 their implementation reached more than 274,300 acres of gopher tortoise habitat.

This new Gopher Tortoise FY 2020 – 2024 Implementation Strategy will build upon those successes and prescribed burning will be the dominant conservation action in this new strategy to recover quality habitats and promote healthy native forest stands. Prescribed burns every 2-3 years are critical to creating and maintaining gopher tortoise habitat needs in pine forests ― they are an effective way to control understory competition, promote soft forage plants and allow young gopher tortoise to easily move through the forest. NRCS estimates 740,950 acres of prescribed burns over the 5-year term of this plan.

As longleaf pine stands mature, timber thinning harvests will be critical to allowing individual trees room to grow and to bring sunlight to the forest floor. Sunlight promotes growth of soft ground vegetation for gopher tortoise grazing and it incubates their nests. The estimate for forest stand improvement is 89,754 acres by 2024.

Other vegetation management practices, such as brush management and invasive species control, will contribute about 30,081 acres to the next 5-year milestone goals. Prescribed grazing management will contribute another 48,474 acres of habitat by 2024. Prescribed grazing was included in the previous implementation strategy for gopher tortoise but was limited to Florida. Now this practice will be used to improve gopher tortoise habitats in Louisiana and Mississippi as well.

Also included in this new implementation strategy are conservation easements totaling 27,500 acres to be secured in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.

This strategy represents a sustained 13-year effort by USDA to promote restoration of the longleaf pine ecosystem and recovery of its keystone species, the gopher tortoise. Learn more about USDA’s wildlife conservation efforts with Working Lands for Wildlife.

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SOURCE: Some info in this article is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (press release August 27, 2020).