The first and most important component of gopher tortoise conservation is to conserve and manage remaining upland habitat, including the wetlands that are a part of the complete ecosystem. We also advocate restoration of upland habitat that has been degraded by intensive silviculture, mining, destruction of native ground cover, and fire exclusion. Much research has been conducted with the goal of evaluating the proper management guidelines for upland ecosystems, particularly longleaf pine habitats, including gopher tortoises and other upland species. Thinning of pines, prescribed burning, removal of exotic plants and animals, and replanting of native groundcover are all components of appropriate management of gopher tortoise habitat.
The GTC recognizes the need for both basic and applied research related to conservation of gopher tortoises and their upland habitats. Specific research needs include questions related to habitat management, habitat fragmentation, demography, disease, genetics, and experimental restocking (see below). The GTC also promotes education and outreach activities to enhance public awareness of issues related to tortoise conservation, as well as providing information for politicians, land managers, and other decision-makers.
Relocation (translocation) is the deliberate movement of wild gopher tortoises to fulfill a conservation need or to remove individuals from impending harm. The goal of translocation for conservation purposes is to enhance severely depleted gopher tortoise populations or to reestablish extirpated populations; these planned movements are also referred to as restockings or repatriations. Relocation is a controversial management strategy because of the potential to spread disease, mix genetically different populations, the loss of burrow commensal species, and the potential low site fidelity of relocated tortoises. In addition, many tortoise populations on development sites are relatively small and probably do not represent a significant contribution to the long-term persistence of this species. However, collectively the number of tortoises affected by habitat loss is large and in Florida, the only alternative to translocation has been incidental take. Incidental take allows tortoises on a development site to be sacrificed in exchange for the developer contributing toward purchase of habitat elsewhere. This alternative is ethically unacceptable to many GTC members and we therefore advocate on-site habitat protection, on-site relocations, use of displaced tortoises for restocking efforts, and use of humane relocations wherever possible.
Careful consideration of the conservation benefits and potential detriments of translocating tortoises led us to develop the following recommendations:
As solar energy investments come to the southeastern United States, there is growing need for conscientious development of utility-scale projects in a manner consistent with environmental protection. Often, lands that are undeveloped and being considered for solar arrays are native habitats for protected species and support other valuable ecological resources. In keeping with the environmental benefits of solar energy, we urge the solar industry to consider conservation when moving forward with projects. We believe this awareness should apply broadly to all energy development, not solar alone; however, as the newest and emerging source of green energy in the Southeast best management practices relevant to solar development are urgently needed.
Click here for resources regarding voluntary Best Management Practices for the solar industry to minimize and possibly avoid impacts to at-risk species and habitats, like the gopher tortoise and sandhills. It is important to note that some states, such as Florida, have regulatory requirements for impacts to gopher tortoises and other wildlife on sites proposed for solar farm development.