The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division and Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) are on an enlistment drive to help count one of the iconic species in Alabama’s longleaf pine forests, the beloved gopher tortoise.
Considered a keystone species of the longleaf ecosystem, the gopher tortoise is crucial for the survival and health of a variety of animal species, including the federally threatened Eastern indigo snake. In fact, more than 360 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are known to spend all or a portion of their lives in either active or abandoned gopher tortoise burrows.
The reason the agencies must ask for help to estimate the population is that the vast majority of gopher tortoises live on private land in Alabama as well as throughout most of its range in the Southeast U.S.
The gopher tortoise is already listed as federally threatened in three Alabama counties – Washington, Mobile and Choctaw – and a decision on a possible listing as threatened in other parts of Alabama is expected in 2022. WFF, AFC and other partners are working together to determine if the population is large enough to preclude the gopher tortoise’s listing as federally threatened.
WFF and the AFC teamed with other concerned partners to conduct a series of presentations in south Alabama to encourage landowners to participate in the survey program. These workshops were funded by the American Forest Foundation.
Ericha Shelton-Nix, WFF’s Gopher Tortoise Program Coordinator, said the presentations focused on several issues, including whether gopher tortoises can be protected without further regulation.
“We have surveyed most of the public lands in Alabama managed by the ADCNR,” Shelton-Nix said. “More than 95 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private ownership. So, there’s pretty much nothing more we can do as a state agency to catalogue the population of gopher tortoises without private landowners stepping up. We have to know where gopher tortoise populations are and assess the populations to see what the status of the species is. We need to assess the populations on private lands. We discussed conservation efforts taking place across the range. We went over all the conservation efforts taking place in Alabama.
“The big take-home message is that we as state and federal agencies, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), have done all we can do without private landowner help.”
Different agencies are offering cost-share for habitat management – incentives for habitat management like prescribed burning. WFF, AFC and other partners have secured grants to provide gopher tortoise surveys on private land free of charge. Several agencies and organizations offer technical assistance on improving habitat.
The verified gopher tortoise populations in Alabama are in the Conecuh National Forest and Fort Rucker near Enterprise, Ala. A follow-up survey is ongoing on Fort Rucker.
“Conecuh has one viable population and Fort Rucker has one,” Shelton-Nix said. “Those are our largest, most contiguous blocks of land with high-priority gopher tortoise soils. It is likely there are others that have yet to be identified in Alabama, but we are working on it.”
Gopher tortoises are mostly limited to deep, sandy soils that make construction of their burrows easier.
The preferred gopher tortoise habitat is open-canopy pine forests with no mid-story growth that allows light to reach the forest floor to promote an abundance of herbaceous ground cover for tortoise forage.
“A species that becomes reproductively mature that late in life, combined with high nesting and hatchling predation rates, creates a long lag time for a tortoise to contribute to a population,” Shelton-Nix said. “In poor habitat, we see small isolated islands, like wildlife openings and roadsides, with only a handful of tortoises. Remember this is a long-lived species. As habitat quality decreases, tortoises will move to areas with food availability. They will survive, but they are not reproducing, therefore, not a viable population. That’s why the social structure is so important.”
The USFWS will consider the three Rs – representation, redundancy and resiliency – during deliberation on the gopher tortoise listing status. Representation covers where it is important to have tortoises on the landscape factored with population level. Redundancy refers to multiple populations that are needed per unit to protect against unit-wide extirpation (local extinction). Resiliency refers to populations large enough to protect against extirpation by catastrophic events.
Shelton-Nix said owners who agree to participate should expect a site visit from biologists to determine suitable habitat.
“We have a limited amount of survey dollars,” Shelton-Nix said. “We need to determine the percentage of suitable soils. We are looking for landowners with 50 or more burrows, so we can be efficient and get the most bang for our bucks.”
If the property is deemed suitable for a survey, the WFF grant will cover the cost of a consultant to conduct a survey, using the Line Transect Distance Sampling method. Each burrow that is found is scoped with video equipment to check for the presence of animals, which helps determine density rate.
Shelton-Nix said the number of burrows doesn’t translate to the number of tortoises.
“Each gopher tortoise can make three to five burrows,” she said. “If someone has 10 burrows on their property, most likely they have two to three tortoises.”
Shelton-Nix said 140 folks attended the four workshops with 30 landowners who were interested in being surveyed.
“We received great feedback,” she said. “But we’re still finding people who didn’t know they are being considered as a threatened species. The gopher tortoise is a very charismatic species, and people who have them love their tortoises.”
The exception are cattle and horse owners who are worried about the burrows.
“There are easy fixes around that,” Shelton-Nix said. “If people call me, we want to help people find solutions to their problems. It is illegal to move them. Another thing unique about gopher tortoises is they have a homing instinct. If you move them, they’re just going to try to go back home and may end up squished on the highway.”
Ray Metzler, who is the AFC’s threatened and endangered species coordinator, said the effort must overcome the concern from citizens when they hear, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”
“We do have ways to provide the information to the USFWS without actually sharing names and addresses,” Metzler said. “We can just tell them that Landowner A has 175 tortoises in Escambia County with a density of whatever. That’s not intrusive and doesn’t share any private information.”
Metzler said the impact of the USFWS decision on the gopher tortoise can’t be determined right now.
“We don’t know if they (USFWS) would limit activities related to the tortoise,” Metzler said. “There might not be any impacts. We really don’t know. The USFWS won’t say until they review the information provided by the states to make the decision. Our goal is to keep it from being listed.
“We are trying to get more private landowners engaged in the process and hopefully allow us to come to their property and do a survey.”
Metzler hopes to acquire more grant money for more outreach to the affected landowners later this year.
“Our first four meetings led to more landowners finding out about the need for this program,” he said. “We’ve actually been on a few pieces of property that we didn’t know existed, that have good habitat and have some tortoises. If we have a few more meetings, it might lead to a few more properties like that.”
Although current research sets a viable population at 250 animals at a certain density, Metzler thinks support populations could have considerably lower numbers.
“You might have a support population at 50 tortoises,” he said. “There’s probably a lot more properties that have 50 tortoises as opposed to 250 at the appropriate density. And we need to find those properties.”
Visit www.outdooralabama.com/nongame-wildlife-species-projects/gopher-tortoise-project for a variety of information, including on the Alabama Tortoise Alliance, which will meet February 28 in Andalusia.