Forest Conservation Has a New Poster Child: The Gopher Tortoise

The imperiled reptile will benefit from a plan to help landowners preserve America’s disappearing longleaf pine trees.

(Photo: Franken/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

How do you protect some of the most endangered forest habitats in the United States? The answer may lie with a critter that often lives beneath that forest: a burrowing species called the gopher tortoise.

Gopher tortoises, which are listed as threatened by the federal government, are native to the Southeastern United States, where they have made their home in a unique, sandy ecosystem called the longleaf pine forest. These forests, which once covered more than 90 million acres across the Southeast, have all but disappeared. Today, after more than 200 years of development, only about 3 percent of historic longleaf pine forests remain.

Most of the longleaf forest that still stands—including more than 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat—exists on privately held lands. To help both species, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month launched a strategy to provide landowners with the tools and resources they need to restore and enhance their pine forests.

The gopher tortoise is the “poster child” for these restoration efforts, said Justin Fritscher, public affairs officer with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Protecting the species not only helps longleaf pine but also benefits the more than 360 other species, from rabbits to toads to rattlesnakes, that depend on gopher tortoise burrows. Fritscher called the burrows “a unique feature in the forest,” and as a result the gopher tortoise is a keystone species for the health of the surrounding ecosystem.

The USDA’s strategy is part of its broader Working Lands for Wildlife program, which encourages conservation of keystone species that live in forests or prairies, such as the sage grouse and prairie chicken. For the gopher tortoise, officials helping landowners plant new trees, take advantage of conservation easement programs to set aside key habitats, manage the land with controlled fires (essential to longleaf productivity), remove invasive plants, and prevent overgrazing. The USDA has both technical and financial assistance available for landowners or managers.

RELATED: The Sage Grouse: Saved or Sold Out?

“These conservation practices are good for wildlife but at the same time good for the landowner too,” Fritscher said. “When you’re managing a habitat for the gopher tortoise, it’s also a healthier forest.” That, he said, creates more economic opportunities from logging and hunting.

It also creates a healthy habitat for numerous other species, many of which are endangered because of the same decline in longleaf pine forests that threatens the gopher tortoise. “Imperiled species like the eastern indigo snake, red-cockaded woodpecker, dusky gopher frog, and flatwoods salamander rely on unique microhabitat only longleaf pine forests can offer,” said Elise Bennett, reptile and amphibian staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Last week, in response to a petition from the organization, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to consider another longleaf denizen, the Louisiana pine snake, for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Bennett said she feels hopeful that the USDA initiative will benefit all these species. “Voluntary longleaf pine conservation on private property is one of many important conservation tools that can help these species recover and survive, particularly because so little of their precious habitat remains,” she said.

Fritscher said collaboration with landowners is essential for the conservation of the gopher tortoise because so much of its habitat is on private property. “You’re not going to accomplish species conservation only on public lands,” he said. “You have to engage the private landowners too.”

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