Gopher Tortoise Initiative: A Partnership to Conserve the Gopher Tortoise

Gopher Tortoise

Authored by Heidi Hall and Brannon Knight

The Orianne Society has been working to conserve the Gopher Tortoise since its inception in 2008. It was and is critical for us to save the Gopher Tortoise in order to conserve the Eastern Indigo Snake. Gopher Tortoises are a keystone species of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. They play an extremely important role in the lifecycle of many other Longleaf Pine associated species and are in need of their own conservation efforts. The Gopher Tortoise digs long burrows in Longleaf Pine sandhill habitats that are used by more than 350 other species. Some of these species are obligate species or actually require Gopher Tortoise burrows to survive. If Gopher Tortoise populations were to disappear, so would many other species of conservation concern.

It was with this in mind that several like-minded conservation groups—including The Orianne Society, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR), The Nature Conservancy-GA, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Georgia Conservancy, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Little St. Simons Island, The Trust for Public Land and many environmentally-focused foundations interested in conservation in the state of Georgia—recently formed the “Gopher Tortoise Initiative.” Together this group will develop a strategy for conserving the remaining tortoise populations in Georgia by protecting and managing much of the remaining habitat occupied by viable tortoise populations.

One of the first properties identified as important Gopher Tortoise habitat is located in Wheeler County, GA. This property is approximately 3,000 acres in size and has one of the largest tortoise populations in the region. An extensive amount of the habitat consists of fire-dependent river dune and sandhill. Gopher Tortoises prefer these sandy soils for burrowing, and Eastern Indigo Snakes use these burrows to seek refuge during winter months. The Orianne Society played a key role in getting this property protected in perpetuity and will play an important role in its restoration and long-term management. We will do this by assisting GADNR with constructing firebreaks and applying prescribed fire to restore critical habitat. Fire is critical for these sites because it keeps the canopy open and allows sunlight to penetrate down to the forest floor. The open canopy allows shade-intolerant, warm-season grasses and forbs to grow, which provides foraging habitat. These associated species need adequate sunlight to photosynthesize, and some species are stimulated by fire, when applied during the growing season, to produce viable seed. It is extremely important for Gopher Tortoise and Eastern Indigo Snake conservation to preserve these sites and manage them with fire to preserve the species.

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