Click to read more about the critical gopher tortoise conservation being done across the species' range in our 2023 state report summaries.
Alabama Forestry Association - Chris Erwin, Executive Vice President reported that the National Fish and Wildlife Federation (NFWF) and partners were awarded a $25 million NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant to restore longleaf in Alabama and Georgia. It will double the amount of cost share available to landowners in Alabama over the next five years.
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF) - Ericha Nix, Wildlife Biologist
DWFF continues work towards determining a more accurate gopher tortoise population estimate and distribution in Alabama. In Alabama, roughly ninety-five percent of the gopher tortoise habitat is in private ownership. The remaining percentage of land holdings are owned by state or federal agencies. Private land surveys are needed to determine accurate gopher tortoise population estimate and distribution in Alabama. Ongoing efforts to work with private landowners by conducting site visits and discussing gopher tortoise habitat and conservation goals.
Typical calls to Wildlife Section district offices often involved single animals encountered by landowners or by motorists. Usually during these calls an explanation of the different levels of protection (federal vs state) is presented. Staff continues to engage private landowners through technical assistance opportunities. Technical assistance consists of a site inspection and burrow scoping to evaluate current habitat conditions and population status for that property. Once a habitat evaluation is completed, best management practices are recommended and discussed.
Gopher tortoise impacts from solar and commercial/residential development are occurring at very fast rates in southern AL, and originating in both the state protected and federally listed portion of the Alabama gopher tortoise range. DWFF has extensively collaborated with landowners, agencies, utilities, developers and consultants to find solutions to gopher tortoise issues. When leaving the animal(s) in place is not an option, relocation to permanently protected public land is considered. State regulation only precludes the direct killing or possession of the gopher tortoise and unlike the federal regulation, does not consider the gopher tortoise burrow or the degradation of the habitat surrounding the animal. DWFF staff is currently pursuing a regulation that would protect the intentional destruction of gopher tortoise burrows.
Calls from the public about possessing waif tortoises were low this fiscal year as we only received two tortoises from an unknown locations. However, targeted relocation efforts are on the rise due to a variety of increased development pressures in Pike, Henry, Houston, Dale, Geneva, Covington, Escambia and Baldwin counties. To date, eleven gopher tortoises were placed in an enclosure at Geneva State Forest. All tortoises will remain in the enclosure for a minimum of six months (to twelve months) after which the enclosure will be removed, and the animals will disperse freely.
DWFF biologists assisted with ongoing gopher tortoise research at Geneva Wildlife Management Area and with headstarts at Auburn University. Assistance included gopher tortoise monitoring, trapping, enclosure construction, data collection, collaborating with researchers, and site inspections.
Education and outreach continued throughout the year via social media, press releases, school programs, and landowner tours. A variety of topics were discussed including species biology, conservation from threats, and habitat management. One unique partnership of note was with Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM). DWFF partnered with the AUM, World Cultures and Language Department to host a Gopher Tortoise Day in Spanish. This partnership resulted in five gopher tortoise brochures being translated from English to Spanish. Spanish classes worked as teams translating brochures. Spanish brochures have been distributed at a variety of landowner events and meetings and has been well received.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is currently revising Florida’s Gopher Tortoise Management Plan that will guide tortoise conservation in Florida for the next ten years. The public commenting period is anticipated early 2024 and will be announced via GovDelivery and Florida Administrative Register.
The 2023 Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines revisions were approved and went into effect in April 2023. Details on the revisions can be found at https://myfwc.com/license/wildlife/gopher-tortoise-permits/permitting-guidelines/guidelines-revisions/
Since November 2022, FWC staff issued ten new Long-term Protected Recipient Site permits and nine new Short-term Protected Recipient sites were permitted. FWC has added gopher tortoise recipient site easements on 2,550 acres of suitable habitat. FWC staff issued 1,753 off-site relocation permits in the last year. Approximately 9,300 tortoises were relocated, and >51,200 acres of gopher tortoise habitat was developed last year.
To promote actionable science, scientific research is being funded on an annual basis. This year three projects were selected for funding: “Gopher Tortoise Disease Study in the Red Hills of Florida-Part 2” Kim Sash et al.; “Filling Permitting Gaps Through GIS Assistance for Local Governance” Neal Halstead et al.; and “Gopher Tortoise Heavy Metal and Disease Detection” Kim Titterington et al... To learn more, visit FWC's Call for Research and Outreach Proposals webpage. To be considered for funding, submit a proposal by April 15, 2024. An online research symposium is planned for January 12th, 2024, to be broadcast on The Florida Channel.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) protected 14,190 new acres of upland habitat this year through conservation easements and fee simple acquisitions. The FDEP and other lead land managing agencies have begun including feasibility analysis of establishing gopher tortoise recipient sites on public lands in their management plans as a result of the Senate Bill 494, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, that took effect in July 2022.
Wildlands Conservation is still accepting pre-orders for gopher tortoise specialty license plates in Florida. Please visit Gopher Tortoise License Plate | Wildlands Conservation to order your plate.
Georgia’s Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative has protected 62 minimum viable populations, just three shy of the goal of 65. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ (GADNR) Gopher Tortoise Survey Crew completed a gopher tortoise resurvey of Alapaha River WMA and surveyed Lanahassee WMA. Both have undergone significant habitat improvements in recent years. GADNR’s Gopher Tortoise Fire Crew led or assisted burns to improve or maintain gopher tortoise habitat totaling 8,725 acres which is up nearly 1,000 acres from last year.
The Jones Center at Ichauway collaborated with GADNR, Tall Timbers, and Atlanta Botanical Gardens on a trial release of captive-born striped newts at Ichauway and worked with GADNR and UGA on a grant to restore seasonal wetlands for rare amphibians. Jones Center MS student, McKayla Susen (UGA) defended her thesis “Exploring the relationship between habitat structure and the gopher tortoise in southwest Georgia.” Lastly, tortoises were trapped, marked, and released for a long-term mark recapture study on Ichauway and at Greenwood Plantation, as part of a 2-year study comparing tortoise populations across two physiographic regions in Georgia.
Tall Timbers has continued disease research at Four Oaks, Arcadia, and Greenwood quail plantations. They also have 50 cameras on gopher tortoise burrows to investigate behavioral differences between healthy and sick tortoises as well as differences in commensals visiting burrows of healthy and sick tortoises.
The USFWS Warm Spring National Fish Hatchery continued to head-start gopher tortoises, releasing 17 juveniles at Altama Plantation WMA, UGA Marine Extension also released 30 heads-starts at Lanahassee WMA, and 8 head-starts from the Mary Khars Warnell Center were released at Lanahassee WMA also.
UGA Marine Extension is continuing research and monitoring efforts for translocated gopher tortoises at heavy mineral mines along the Georgia coast.
This year has brought additional proposed utility-scale solar power developments in good tortoise habitat. GADNR continues to work with developers to avoid or minimize the largest impacts. This year, the Recommended Practices for the Responsible Siting and Design of Solar Development in Georgia was released. This solar-specific document was developed by federal, state, and NGO partners to provide guidance on Geogia-specific natural resources, including gopher tortoises.
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) is continuing to gather gopher tortoise population and distribution data on public and private lands. For some gopher tortoise populations in Louisiana, five years or more have passed since initial survey efforts. Therefore, LDWF hired two technicians to assist with gopher tortoise surveys in Washington, St. Tammany, and Tangipahoa parishes. Surveys were conducted on two public lands: Sandy Hollow Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and Lee Memorial Forest. Surveys were also conducted on several privately-owned lands including industrial and non-industrial timber property in Washington and St. Tammany parishes, and on several pipeline and powerline rights-of-way. Transect surveys, which included assessing burrow status and detecting tortoise presence using a burrow camera, were conducted during winter of 2023. Preliminary data analysis shows a total of 310 burrows assessed among all sites (148-Sandy Hollow WMA; 23-Lee Memorial Forest; 98-industrial timberland; 12-non-industrial private property; 29-rights-of-way).
LDWF staff discovered an additional juvenile gopher tortoise within a food plot on a 300-acre private tract of degraded habitat in St. Tammany Parish. The juvenile tortoise is being head-started, along with a tortoise that hatched from a nest on the same property in 2021, while habitat restoration efforts are underway. LDWF staff assisted with gopher tortoise surveys and marking burrows prior to improving habitat with timber thinning activities.
LDWF staff installed an enclosure on Sandy Hollow WMA to release two waif gopher tortoises that passed a health check and disease screening. LDWF staff also conducted a forage quality assessment survey within and surrounding the enclosure to determine the adequacy of forage for released tortoises. Overall, this site contained high quality forage for gopher tortoises.
Mississippi state-wide prescribed burning was reported for almost 50,000 acres, thinnings for 1255 acres, Longleaf restoration clear-cuts in 423 acres and non-native herbicide treatments for almost 600 acres. For the First time Cooperative Energy offered an Authorized Gopher Tortoise Agent Certification Course in Hattiesburg for their employees and contractors. It was administered by Neal Halstead, Wildlands Conservation Inc. A multi-agency survey effort was undertaken on Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, the first survey since 2014 across 241 acres in five burn units on the Mississippi side of Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge. A total of 147 (69 active or inactive) burrows were located and marked across the 5 units.
The Desoto District of the Forest Service had trapped and relocated 31 solitary tortoises onto priority management units. Forest Service tortoise recovery efforts related to head-starting continued with a partnership with the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery to collect eggs on the De Soto Ranger District. A total of 65 eggs were collected with a 72% hatch rate, 47 surviving hatchlings. This is a similar hatching percentage to last year (77%).The Nature Conservancy (TNC) at Camp Shelby Mississippi Air National Guard (MSARNG) currently has (82) one year olds, (75) 2 year olds, and 20 3 year old head started tortoises (total of 177 tortoises). TNC Outreach and education was provided for a total of 437 people (291 adults, 146 youth).
Eight tortoises were admitted into the Central Mississippi Turtle Rescue for rehabilitation, two died in care, two were released at a translocation site, and four are still in rehabilitation with the Mississippi Aquarium. Two waifs were tested and moved to a translocation site on the Land Trust for The Mississippi Coastal Plain (LTMCP) property. Four tortoises were fitted with Apple airtags purchased by the LTMCP for a tracking project but it has been unsuccessful to date. A different method of GPS tag will be used for the 2024 release of waifs.
Waif and headstart tortoises continue to be released at the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve (AGTHP) to create an MVP. This property was purchased with ~8 tortoises and waifs have been added since 2007, the majority of which have come from an MOA with Florida FWC. Currently we estimate between 150-200 adults on the property. This year we added 16 waifs and 24 one and two-year old headstarts (support for headstarting from the Longleaf Alliance).
Restoration of ~180 acres of uplands continues at the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve, 1 of 2 MVPs in SC. One hundred and fifty acres were hand cleared and 60 acres were mulched to provide more suitable habitat and an opportunity to disperse on the property.
The Open Space Institute, The Nature Conservancy and Knobloch Foundation purchased ~13000 acres in Hampton and Jasper counties over the last couple of years, which included the largest (MVP) and third largest (PSP) gopher tortoise populations in South Carolina. With these purchases, the four largest gopher tortoise populations in SC are on protected lands (2 MVP and 2 PSP). The first of those properties (Coosawhatchie WMA) was turned over to SCDNR this fall. Restoration and habitat enhancement has begun.
SCDNR was part of an awarded multi-state America the Beautiful grant to restore and enhance gopher tortoise habitat at Coosawhatchie WMA and Tillman Sand Ridge HP. Additionally, will restore wetlands for gopher frogs at the Webb Wildlife Center and transition multiple old food plots into pollinator fields at Coosawhatchie WMA.
SCDNR and partners (USFWS, US Forest Service, Longleaf Alliance, Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy, Savannah River Ecology Lab) continue restoration, monitoring and headstarting for gopher frog populations in SC.
SREL, SCDNR and Riverbanks Zoo completed a study to compare hard vs soft released metamorph gopher frog survival, movements and habitat use.