The Orianne Society focuses on the conservation of imperiled reptile and amphibian species using a landscape based approach. Most of our conservation effort is focused into three target landscapes: the Longleaf Savannas, the Great Northern Forests and the Appalachian Highlands, but we also work on international conservation projects. Within each landscape, we work to conserve species through a strategic approach, informed by science. Specifically, we examine the status and needs of priority species, such as the Eastern Indigo Snake and Wood Turtle, to determine what conservation actions are needed to protect and restore their populations in the places most important to the species.
Depending on need, conservation may mean protecting critical habitat from development, returning natural processes such as fire to the landscape, planting trees and native groundcover, restoring nesting habitat, establishing vegetated buffers between working lands and rivers, or direct population management through captive breeding programs and reintroductions.
We do not do this alone, and partnerships are key to conservation success. Private landowners, state and federal wildlife agencies, land trusts, and other conservation organizations all share a stake in the landscapes and species we strive to protect, and are an integral part of the work we do, as is the public. Through collaboration, we will ensure these imperiled animals and the landscapes they depend on are secure.
Longleaf Savannas Conservation
The Longleaf Savannas are defined by vast expanses of grasslands with sparse Longleaf Pines in the uplands, intersected by complex systems of blackwater swamps and creeks of Tower Cypress and hardwoods. The historic range of the Longleaf sweeps through the Southeastern Coastal Plain from southern Virginia around to eastern Texas. The current landscape is broken up by extensive areas of agriculture, commercial timber stands, roads, and towns and cities. The Southeast has one of the fastest growing human populations in North America which is putting increasing pressure of wildlife and making habitat restoration and management more difficult.
The Longleaf Savannas is one of the most reptile and amphibian diverse regions in North America and is characterized as a global biodiversity hotspot. There is a long list of species that have declined and are endangered with extinction. For example, species like Flatwoods Salamanders, Gopher Tortoises, and Eastern Indigo Snakes depend on intact, well managed Longleaf habitats but are all threatened with extinction. A broad group of partners have come together across the region to implement a range-wide approach to conserving the Longleaf Pine ecosystem and The Orianne Society is a critical partner in this effort.
The Orianne Society’s conservation efforts in the Longleaf Savannas are centered around the Longleaf Stewardship Center (LSC). The LSC is a nexus to bring staff, volunteers, and partners together to implement conservation of Longleaf Pine ecosystems. First, the LSC serves as a preserve that is an important home for many rare species such as Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, and Spotted Turtles. Second, it is the base of operations for our Gopher Tortoise Strike Team that works to manage and restore Longleaf habitats throughout the region. Third, it is a center where volunteers are trained and based out of while working on rare species surveys and habitat restoration projects. Finally, it is a place where we hold trainings for professionals and volunteers to implement rare species conservation and habitat management.
The Orianne Society is one of the leaders in Longleaf habitat restoration and management in Georgia. Our Gopher Tortoise Strike team works as an integral part of the Georgia Interagency burn team to restore and management habitat on both private and public land across the state. One of the primary tools we use is prescribed fire. We use fire extensively to restore and maintain Longleaf forests to an open savanna-like structure. We ensure that these savannas have tree structure by removing off-site Pines and planting hundreds of thousands of Longleaf Pines. We also are significantly increasing our capacity to do groundcover restoration to ensure that these savannas have an understory of native grasses and forbs. Finally, we also work on wetlands restoration by running fire into wetlands to ensure they do not get too overgrown and remain good habitats for rare species such as Gopher Frogs, Flatwoods Salamanders, and Striped Newts.
The Orianne Society recognizes the importance of Gopher Tortoises as providing habitat for rare species and as a critical component of habitat in Longleaf Pine forests. Over 350 species of wildlife are known to use the burrows that Gopher Tortoises create. As such, we have an active Gopher Tortoise conservation program. First, we work on Gopher Tortoise inventory and monitoring work across south Georgia. Second, we work with private land owners to translocate Gopher Tortoises that would otherwise be entombed and die. We translocate those tortoises to public and private properties to bolster existing populations and reestablish populations that have been lost. Finally, we have plans to build a Gopher Tortoise husbandry facility at the Longleaf Stewardship Center that can be used in translocation or for potential head-start projects.
The Orianne Society is the leading nonprofit working with private land owners on Longleaf Savannas restoration and management. Georgia has relatively little public land as compared to other states and little of the public land in the state is in the Longleaf ecosystem. Thus our work with private landowners is critical for restoring the Longleaf Savannas in the region. For the last decade, we have worked with a network of over 30 landowners helping them restore habitats using Longleaf planting, prescribed fire, and groundcover restoration. In addition, we have partnered with the US Natural Resources Conservation Service to increase private lands conservation. We are working to link private landowners to a Gopher Tortoise and Longleaf specific cost-share program aimed at increasing habitat for all species.
The Orianne Society is working as part of a large partnership to reintroduce Eastern Indigo Snake Populations to portions of their range where they have been extirpated. Eastern Indigo Snakes have disappeared from approximately one third of their historic range. Specifically, they have disappeared from much of Gulf regions in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan outlines the need to restore the species in multiple landscapes in the Gulf region to recover the species and remove them from the Endangered Species List. We built a state-of-the-art captive breeding facility in Florida, where in partnership with Central Florida Zoo, Eastern Indigo Snakes are produced for reintroductions. We also formed and help lead the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Committee (EISRC). The EISRC is made of up multiple federal and state agencies, nonprofits and zoos, universities, and private citizens. The committee coordinates all research, monitoring, breeding strategies, and reintroduction strategies relative to recovering Eastern Indigo Snakes in the Gulf region. To date, over three hundred snakes have been reintroduced between two sites, one in Alabama and one in Florida.
Great Northern Forests Conservation
Water and woods define the natural character of the Great Northern Forests, where lake and river valleys weave between the peaks of the Northern Appalachians, including the Green Mountains and Hudson Highlands. This region, which spans most of New England and Upstate New York into southeastern Canada, is comprised of heavily forested ridgelines separated by large tracts of open farmland. Also included are some of the most densely populated cities in the North America. Climb to the top of some mountains, and not a single human structure lies in sight, while others offer views of distant city skylines.
The Great Northern Forests are home to a variety of reptile and amphibians, and are especially important to the conservation of some of North America’s most imperiled freshwater turtles, including Wood, Spotted, Bog, Blanding’s and Box Turtles. Even in remote areas, these species are struggling. The Orianne Society is working in several focal landscapes within the Great Northern Forests to secure the future of these declining species, with particular focus on select areas within Northern New England and the Hudson-Berkshire region.
There is only one place in the world where Wood, Spotted, Blanding’s, Box, and Bog Turtles live close to one another; the Hudson-Berkshire Highlands. This area is rich in reptile and amphibian biodiversity and has large tracts of undeveloped forests, but from the top of some mountains hikers are met with views of the New York City skyline. Pressure to develop the land is strong, and the need to protect habitat here is great.
The Orianne Society is working to secure the future of imperiled turtles in this area, which spans much of the lower Hudson River Valley and surrounding landscape, including temperate forests of northern New Jersey, the mixed wood plains and highlands of western Connecticut and southwestern Massachusetts, and the entire Hudson River drainage of southern New York between New York City and Albany. We are in the process of launching a strategic turtle conservation program in this area, and will soon begin widespread population inventories to identify key areas critical to the conservation of imperiled turtles where we will target land conservation efforts, beginning with Wood and Spotted Turtles.
The northern hardwood forests that compromise much of Northern New England are marked by transition. With Oak-Hickory forests to the south and boreal Conifer forests to the north, the biodiversity in this region includes a unique blend of species whose ranges overlap in very few places. Tucked away in river valleys, the Wood Turtle is quite at home here, but their populations struggle to keep pace with increased traffic and modern farming practices.
The Orianne Society is working hard to protect and restore Wood Turtle habitat several focal areas in Northern New England. The upper Connecticut River Valley, which straddles the Vermont and New Hampshire border, and a part of Vermont known as the “Northeast Kingdom” host several critical sites for regional Wood Turtle conservation. Collectively, these areas contain hundreds of miles of Wood Turtle habitat, which may be of even greater importance to the species as climate change threatens their habitat farther south. Here, we are intensively monitoring populations of Wood Turtles in a rural river basins, where we work with landowners to enhance Wood Turtle habitat, especially on private working lands.
Appalachian Highlands Conservation
The Appalachian Highlands is one of the last great wild landscapes in eastern North America. While the mountains stretch across many eastern states, the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee are particularly special. Most of the highest mountains in the east are found there. They occur at relatively low latitudes, and the region was never glaciated resulting in incredible biodiversity. Much of the region (in particular, the mountains) are protected by the U.S. Forest Service while the valleys are primarily private land, characterized by small scale agriculture and rural residential development. The forests of the region have changed drastically with the loss of the American Chestnut and the disruption of most natural disturbance regimes. The region sees significant influxes of tourists during the warm season but increasing amounts of people are moving into the region.
The Appalachian Highlands are one of the most diverse temperate regions in the world. In particular, it is the global diversity hotspot for salamanders with more species than anywhere else on the planet. These mountains are also home to some of the most threatened species of reptiles and amphibians including Bog Turtles and Eastern Hellbenders. The Orianne Society is working to conserve these species as well as some species that are regionally threatened by the growing human populations such as Timber Rattlesnakes.
Rural residential development has resulted in people coming in more frequent contact with venomous snakes such as Timber Rattlesnakes. We have developed a rattlesnake stewardship project in order to help people and their pets to stay safe, as well as to conserve rattlesnakes. As part of this effort, we are monitoring rattlesnake populations, providing education programs, as well as landscape planning and translocation services for landowners.
Many of the rarest species in the region (e.g., Bog Turtles and Eastern Hellbenders) depend on wetlands and creeks in the valleys. With increasing human development in the region, the majority of these wetlands have been lost. We work with private land owners to restore wetlands and riparian areas.
Reptiles and amphibians are incredibly diverse and distributed around the world, from deep in the rainforests of the Amazon to frigid climates above the Arctic Circle. They are critically important to human populations around the world as flagships for ecotourism, sources of food and products, indicators of ecosystem health, and sources of medical breakthroughs. Threats to these species vary but reptiles and amphibians are some of the most threatened wildlife species globally. Over half of the turtle species on earth are threatened with extinction and amphibian populations are declining as we are in the middle of an amphibian extinction wave. The Orianne Society works around the world with a diverse group of partners to conserve endangered reptiles, amphibians and the habitats they need.
The Orianne Society works on snake and turtle conservation around the world through its International Union for the Conservation (IUCN) of Nature partnerships. Dr. Chris Jenkins, our CEO, founded and chaired the IUCN Viper Specialist Group for a decade and now serves on the Executive Committee for the Snake Specialist Group. In addition, Kiley Briggs, our Director of Conservation recently became a member of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. In our role with these specialist groups we work on global assessments of species’ status and use the information to maintain the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most comprehensive source on the global extinction risk status of animals, fungi, and plants. We have also worked on field projects conserving various species including species such as Black-headed Bushmasters.
The Orianne Society is working to conserve tortoises in the Seychelles and beyond through its partnership with the Indian Ocean Tortoise Alliance (IOTA). The Orianne Society played a key role in the creation of IOTA. Dr. Chris Jenkins, The Orianne Society's CEO, is a Director of IOTA and is heavily involved in developing program strategy, fundraising, and operations. Our work is currently focused in the islands of the western Indian Ocean and the rewilding of Aldabra Tortoises throughout the Archipelago. Tortoises were once widespread but have disappeared from many of the islands. The tortoises are critical to ecosystem function; as they move and forage through these tropical ecosystems they naturally disturb vegetation and soils, providing food for other species and cycling nutrients through the system. We are also developing research, outreach, and ecotourism approaches to aid in conservation with the Aldabra Tortoises.