Click to read more about the critical gopher tortoise conservation being done across the species' range in our 2021 state report summaries.
Habitat management continues on Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) owned public lands in the tortoise range. Management activities included prescribed burning with an emphasis on summer burning, when applicable, invasive plant control, longleaf pine restoration, predator management and mulching and spraying activities to control hardwood species. The 2021 Gopher Tortoise Candidate Conservation Agreement Report will detail acres managed and maintained.
As the range of the potential listing of gopher tortoise has expanded and the subsequent public announcement of the candidate species status, interest in the gopher tortoise and the responsibilities of landowners have greatly increased. Staff continues to meet with private landowners and developers to provide technical assistance relating to gopher tortoise issues or habitat management to increase gopher tortoise population potential. Calls have increased relating to gopher tortoise impacts from commercial or residential development originating from the unlisted portion of the range, and DWFF has worked with developers and consultants on relocation efforts to permanently protected conservation lands. There have been no targeted relocation efforts from private lands this year. Twelve tortoises were relocated this year due to development or found on the road in unsuitable habitat. Three of the tortoises were waifs as we did not know where they originated from and were turned in by a wildlife rehabilitator. Tortoises will reside in the enclosure for 6-12 months after which it will be removed by prescribed fire and the tortoises will then be able to disperse.
Two target landowner meetings occurred this fiscal year in Coffee and Henry counties. One meeting was scheduled in Mobile County and was canceled due to staffing issues from Covid. Workshops have been, so far, well received as landowners are now contacting DWFF and partners to learn more about how they can assist with the conservation of the species and to offer access for LTDS surveys.
Alabama gopher tortoise population counts are as follows (includes public and non-industrial private lands):
5 viable populations
5 Primary support populations
32 Secondary support populations
Florida’s 2012 Gopher Tortoise Management Plan guides conservation efforts for the species through 2022. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has initiated a plan revision that will guide tortoise conservation in Florida for the next ten years.
FWC permitted four new long-term protected recipient sites and added capacity through an amendment for additional acreage for three existing long-term recipient site permits; an additional 11,103 tortoises have been authorized for receipt. There are also long-term, short-term, contiguous public conservation lands, and public lands restocking site permits pending issuance and many more interested in pursuing a recipient site permit, in large part due to a recent media push.
The Florida Forest Service (FFS) is evaluating areas on State Forests to potentially permit as restocking sites in cooperation with FWC. The FFS is working with FWC and the US Army Corps of Engineers to establish a Public Conservation Lands Recipient Site on Picayune Strand State Forest to accommodate tortoises impacted by the Picayune Strand Restoration Project. The FFS completed the first monitoring report for the Public Conservation Lands Recipient Site on the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest. The site is in great shape and was burned within the last two years.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection protected >5,800 new acres of tortoise habitat this year through conservation easements and fee simple acquisitions.
Efforts continue to evaluate tortoise populations on conservation lands using Line Transect Distance Sampling; 51 of 87 sites surveyed meet criteria for a viable population.
Over $150,000 was awarded for 13 projects this year to assist local governments with habitat management activities on >520 acres of conservation lands.
Tall Timbers continues to monitor populations on Tall Timbers, Livingston Place, Arcadia and Greenwood.
Jeff Goessling continues with studying population demographics of Boyd Hill gopher tortoises and will soon be starting a genetic study of insular gopher tortoise populations in collaboration with Prof Sarah Duncan (biology professor at Eckerd College). To promote actionable science, scientific research is being funded on an annual basis. Last year, four projects were selected for funding. Visit the Call for Research and Outreach Proposals webpage to learn how to apply; the deadline to submit proposals is April 15, 2022.
Since the inception of the Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard Recognition Program in April 2020, over 200 friendly yards have been recognized in Florida.
Consider submitting your sightings to the Gopher Tortoise Sightings application.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Gopher Tortoise Crew conducted Line Transect Distance Sampling on nine sites. Three of these were re-surveys on state-owned Wildlife Management Areas, and all three sites have shown an increase in tortoise densities and abundance. A new waif pen was constructed at Alligator Creek WMA to help bolster the population of tortoises on that site.
A variety of situations resulted in hatchlings and eggs needing to be moved. In total, 14 hatchlings and 32 eggs were collected and transported to Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery where they will be headstarted and released back onto state protected lands. Progress was made toward the goal of protecting 65 MVPs, with several NRCS Conservation Easements in the works that if finalized could potentially put us at 65 by the end of 2022. The Gopher tortoise fire crew had a productive first season, burning over 5,000 acres on high priority gopher tortoise habitat on WMAs, state parks, and private properties.
A site-wide tortoise survey was completed at Ichauway. The Jones Center has surveyed every 5 years since 2006 and the population appears to be increasing. Current abundance estimate is 5,683 (95% CI 4,357-7,412) tortoises. The centers long-term mammalian predator exclusion study is in its 18th year. Tortoise densities have increased in some of the exclosures, but not in others. Mark-recapture studies are being implemented to understand why. A new UGA/Jones Center master’s student, McKayla Susen, will be looking at habitat predictors of tortoise occurrence at Ichauway and Greenwood Plantation using terrestrial LiDAR data.
The University of Georgia’s Coastal Ecology Lab continued in their efforts to translocate tortoises from mine sites to state owned lands. The lab is monitoring the survival and movements of translocated tortoises via GPS and VHF transmitters. The lab is also monitoring the survival of tortoises relocated to reclaimed mine sites. Eggs also are excavated from mine sites, hatched in Brunswick, where hatchlings are head-started and released on state lands where they are monitored using telemetry and game cameras.
The Tall Timbers Research Station completed gopher tortoise surveys on Four Oaks Plantation.
Habitat restoration on public and private lands in Washington, St. Tammany, and Tangipahoa parishes continues to be a priority in Louisiana. Through a Multi-state Sandhills/Upland Pine Restoration grant, a total of 1,129 acres of industrial and non-industrial private property received prescribed burning in the spring. One of these properties holds the largest gopher tortoise population in the state. Several of these tracts have received multiple burns through this grant and are nearing optimal conditions for the gopher tortoise and other open pine species, including wild turkey and northern bobwhite. LDWF worked with several private landowners to promote opportunities for technical and financial assistance for longleaf pine restoration and gopher tortoise conservation, as well as assistance with addressing threats such as nest predation by small mammals and red imported fire ants. LDWF staff also assisted NRCS with an outreach effort to promote the various technical, financial, and environmental benefits to private landowners who enroll in the Working Lands for Wildlife and Longleaf Pine Initiative Programs.
Gopher tortoise surveys were conducted on Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge and one pipeline right-of-way in Washington parish, to update occurrence data for the species. One additional survey was conducted on a powerline right-of-way not previously surveyed in Washington parish; no tortoises or burrows were observed. Plans are in place to conduct extensive surveys in 2022 and 2023, including nest searches. Land acquisition for gopher tortoise conservation remains a goal and, coupled with habitat restoration, is critical to create a long-term viable population in Louisiana.
LDWF reviewed various development projects within the gopher tortoise range in Louisiana and advised on potential impacts to tortoises and strategies for minimizing those impacts. One female waif tortoise, which was rehabilitated after being mauled by a dog, was released in a pen on Sandy Hollow WMA. The public is requested to continue to notify LDWF if tortoises are found outside of their natural range in Louisiana.
State and federal agencies, NGOs, and private landowners collaborate on restoration and management of federally threatened gopher tortoises in Mississippi.
COVID and wet conditions limited habitat management and research activities, but herbicide application for cogongrass, mechanical midstory removal, and prescribed burns were achieved on > 86,000 acres of state and federal lands during 2021. Longleaf pine was restored on 1,319 acres of state, federal, and private lands.
State and federal agencies and NGOs conducted comprehensive burrow surveys on state, federal, and private lands to determine a more accurate estimate of tortoise populations in Mississippi.
The gopher tortoise head-start program at Camp Shelby continues: 31 nests containing 181 eggs were located on 20 sites. One hundred and seventy-eight were incubated. Seventy-six of the 178 eggs hatched (42.7%). One hundred and forty-five 2 – 2.5-year-old tortoises were released on restored habitat at Camp Shelby. The head-start building currently contains 220 individuals.
Seven waifs/injured gopher tortoises materialized. Most were temporarily housed at the Central MS Turtle Rescue (CMTR) facility.
Dog-related injuries increased; one such injury required amputation of a forelimb. One tortoise injured by a vehicle will be overwintered at CMTR.
Despite challenges of COVID, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ (MDWFP) Mississippi Museum of Natural Science’s (MMNS) outreach educators provided 263 virtual and in-person programs about tortoises to school groups, adults, and children at workshops, and special events in 2021.
In 2021, eight new black pine snakes were captured on Camp Shelby, and six new and one recaptured individual were found beyond Camp Shelby’s boundaries.
The Mississippi Natural Heritage Program initiated an effort to use citizen science (via Facebook and iNaturalist) to retrieve observations of black pine snakes in Mississippi. The incredible response through social media resulted in the addition of several new sightings to their database.
Mississippi has two new hires. John Tupy joined the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Jackson Ecological Services Office. He oversees the recovery efforts for gopher tortoises within the listed range, black pine snakes, and MS dusky gopher frogs. Jennifer Frey joined MDWFP’s MMNS. She is the lead biologist concerning environmental issues and SGCN in south Mississippi, including gopher tortoise, MS dusky gopher frog, and black pine snake. Jen was also inducted as a co-state rep for the GTC at the October 2021 meeting.
Waif and headstart tortoises continue to be released at the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve in an effort to increase this population to a Minimum Viable Population – This property encompasses ~1600 acres and is managed specifically for gopher tortoises. We started with ~8 tortoises and have released over 300 over the last decade – largely benefited by MOA with Florida FWC.
Restoration of around 180 acres of uplands continues at the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve, our second largest gopher tortoise population and one of just two Minimum Viable Populations in SC.
The Open Space Institute purchased 121+ acres adjacent to the Tillman Sand Ridge HP, to eventually be added to the Tillman Sand Ridge Property. The Open Space Institute and Knobloch Foundation purchased around 4000 acres, which included the majority of the third largest gopher tortoise population in South Carolina.
Coastal Carolina radio tracking adult pine snakes in SC to identify habitat range, habitat use and behavior.
Gopher frog headstart/habitat restoration efforts:
- US Fish and Wildlife Service/Savannah River Ecology Lab-University of GA collected eggs and released metamorphs back to their natal wetland on the Savannah River Site
- US Fish and Wildlife Service /Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy/US Forest Service collected eggs and released metamorphs back to their natal wetland on the Francis Marion National Forest
- SC Department of Natural Resources/Riverbanks Zoo collected eggs and released metamorphs to state owned WMA
- SC Department of Natural Resources restoring wetlands for gopher frogs on WMA
In May, new regulations were passed that effectively banned Argentine Black and White (B/W) tegus (and their hybrids) in SC. After September 25th, all captive B/W tegus in SC require a PIT tag and SCDNR permit. Permits are good for 3 years and can be renewed for the life of the animal, but cannot be transferred. No new B/W tegus can be produced or imported, and B/W tegus cannot be bought, sold, traded, etc. in SC.