Gopher tortoise on ESA wait list for protection

NEWS

Gopher tortoise on ESA wait list for protection

Amy Banton
Aiken Standard

July 25, 2011

 

The gopher tortoise, which has a preserve in Aiken County, is now on the waiting list for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the announcement Tuesday that the species located on the eastern range, which includes South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, is now eligible for ESA protection, according to a press release. “After careful review, we have determined the gopher tortoise east of Mobile Bay (an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico) is facing many of the same problems as the western population, which is listed as threatened,” said Cynthia Dohner, Southeast Regional Director for FWS, in a press release. Dohner said placement on the waiting list does not mean any new regulations or changes to land use. “The real challenge now is to fine-tune on-the-ground management and reach out to more private landowners, who can have a profound impact on recovery for all species in this ecosystem,” Dohner said. The FWS conducted a yearlong study of habitat trends and reproduction data to reach this conclusion.

FWS officials said the most troubling find was that the aging generation of tortoises are suffering from lower reproduction success possibly due to declining habitat conditions. Tracey Tuberville and Kurt Buhlmann, both Savannah River Ecology Lab research scientists, have carefully studied the species. They said one issue they’ve observed is a disturbance or loss of habitat, citing an example of stray dogs from surrounding neighborhoods digging up a tortoise’s burrow and destroying its hiding space. The small population of tortoises also creates inbreeding, causing a decline in genetic quality, Buhlmann added. The population in the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve is less than 100, and the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve in Jasper County has around 150 adult tortoises. SREL is working with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to increase that population through a project to reintroduce gopher tortoises to the Aiken preserve. The gopher tortoise joins 250 other species on the waiting list for federal protection. On a priority scale from one to 12, one being a species at most imminent risk, the tortoise ranked eight, according to a press conference held by FWS Tuesday. That puts the species fairly low on the waiting list, and it will probably take several years for it to receive ESA protection, officials said. According to Jennifer Koches with the South Carolina FWS office, being officially placed under the ESA would allow a higher level of protection for the gopher tortoise. “Federal listing would be a whole new ballgame for the species,” she said. SC-DNR Herpetologist Stephen Bennett said it will certainly help the cause but South Carolina has been in the process of preserving the species for years. In 1984, SC-DNR received a donation of land for the preserve in Jasper County, and, in 1992, the Aiken preserve opened up; both are managed by SC- DNR, Bennett said. “We’ve had a long history in South Carolina in preserving the gopher tortoises,” Bennett said. “This will be another milestone along the way, and we’ll see what happens. Hopefully, it will enhance the conservation of gopher tortoises.” Placing the species on the waiting list does make projects revolving around the preservation and research of gopher tortoises eligible for the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund or section six of the ESA. Bennett said, with the recent development, the SC-DNR could discuss the possibility of delegating some of those funds to gopher tortoise preservation in the future.

For more information, visit www.fws.gov/southeast. Contact Amy Banton at abanton@aikenstandard.com. Gopher tortoise facts: * An adult can weigh up to 10 pounds and can reach 15 inches in length. * They can reach 50 to 60 years of age or more. * This tortoise is the only one in the Southeast that digs its own burrow, and more than 250 other species have been known to utilize them whether active or abandoned. * The shell of an adult gopher tortoise is typically dull and unmarked. Juveniles are a bit lighter, ranging from the colors of yellow-brown to light gray. * The tortoise has a diet of beans, broadleaf grasses, some plants in the sunflower family, blackberries, blueberries, gopher apples and other low-growing fruits.