The United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service will continue its conservation efforts of the gopher tortoise (Go
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will continue its conservation efforts of the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)and its critical habitat, the USDA announced in a press release August 31.
The NRCS released its five year plan, which will specifically focus on conserving and restoring the longleaf pine forests where the gopher tortoises live in and build their burrows. The quality of the habitat determines the fate of these chelonians, Acting NRCS Chief Kevin Norton said.
“With Working Lands for Wildlife, we’re able to develop successful solutions for both wildlife and landowners,” Acting NRCS Chief Kevin Norton said. “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.”
Since 2017, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has protected 274,302 acres of gopher tortoise habitat, with an additional 975,687 acres slated for protection by 2024.
The USDA’s Working Lands for Wildlife will work to conserve the habitat of this keystone species, including:
- 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
Prescribed burning will serve as the key component to successfully rehabilitate and conserve the gopher tortoise’s natural habitats. This method gives trees room to grow and allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. Prescribed burns also promotes the growth of soft forage plants, which enable young gopher tortoises to more easily move about the forest. The NRCS estimates that 740,000 acres of prescribed burns will occur during the course of the five-year plan. Other management plans, including brush management and invasive species should yield an additional 30,081 acres of suitable habitat for the reptile.
Additionally, a prescribed grazing plan will contribute an additional 48,474 acres of habitat by 2024, according to the NRCS. And finally, a conservation easement that total 27,500 acres will be secured in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
The plan is an ongoing 13 year effort to protect the gopher tortoise, a keystone species in the ecosystems in which the tortoises live.
Gopher Tortoise Information
The gopher tortoise is a federally endangered species that is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is considered a keystone species by scientists, due to its burrowing nature, which then helps an estimated 360 other animal species who take advantage of those networks of tunnels. It averages about a foot long and can be found in along the coastal plains of the Southeastern United States, including South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, southern Alabama, Mississippi, and southeastern Louisiana. It dines primarily on grasses in the wild and can eat beans, corn and most fruit. It is protected throughout its range and requires a permit to keep.