The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has determined that eastern and western portions of the gopher tortoise range meet the Distinct Population Segments (DPS) criteria. The agency also determined in the species status assessment that the eastern population does not meet the requirements for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“We hope the decision not to federally protect the eastern gopher tortoise population will not lead to backtracking on current measures to protect the species,” said Defenders of Wildlife Senior Northwest Florida Representative Kent Wimmer. “The threats posed to unprotected gopher tortoise habitat from land use conversion, new roads and development seem to be only increasing. We will continue to champion the protection of habitat and reinforce current programs like the reintroduction of gopher tortoises to protected previously occupied habitat.”
The Species Status Assessment indicates gopher tortoise populations in the eastern population, including the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and most of Alabama, are robust. This is largely due to concerted conservation efforts of federal and state agencies, as well as private landowners in the last 15 years. Existing measures and regulations will help ensure that the species will continue to persist in the foreseeable future.
The western portion of the gopher tortoise range (western Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) was determined by FWS to be a DPS and confirmed the population would retain its threatened status. If the states weaken their regulations protecting gopher tortoises in the future, FWS will re-evaluate their decision to make sure appropriate conservation measures are in place, one of the five criteria used for federal listing.
Due to human interference, gopher tortoises no longer inhabit a large area of their historic range. Increasingly, they are threatened by habitat loss, roadkill, predation and climate change, and continue to be illegally harvested by people. Defenders of Wildlife, local groups, agencies and citizens continue to work to protect gopher tortoises from these threats with large-scale land conservation efforts.
“I serve on the state’s Gopher Tortoise Technical Assistance Group supporting science-based updates to the state’s Gopher Tortoise Management Plan and the guidelines for development in tortoise habitat,” said Wimmer. “We also work with agencies and private land managers like foresters and farmers on Wildlife Best Management Practices, guiding operations on private forests and agricultural lands to protect gopher tortoises, their nests and burrows.”
Gopher tortoises live in the dry, sandy uplands of the southeastern U.S., with the largest remaining populations being in Florida and Southwestern Georgia. They dig long, deep burrows (up to 40 feet in length and fifteen feet deep!) that help tortoises escape extreme temperatures and predators. More than 350 other species use these burrows as well, including the Florida mouse, burrowing owl, gopher frog and the threatened eastern indigo snake.
“Without gopher tortoises and their burrows, many of these species would vanish,” said Wimmer.
FWS is planning a virtual public informational meeting on December 13, 2022, from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. EST to present the findings and discuss gopher tortoise conservation and management. To register: https://www.fws.gov/project/gopher-tortoise