Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Good Times

It's been three years now since I was in the middle of the ivory-billed woodpecker search on the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. It was one of the most enjoyable times of my life, despite seeing or hearing nothing strongly suggestive of an ivorybill. Say "Florida" and most people think of Disney World or beaches. As this photo of the tail end of my pickup (with kayak) shows, we were operating in a very different part of the state. If you want to get a taste of it, check out Erroll Morris' film, Vernon, Florida. I'm ready to go back.

"Now, this here's a gopher..."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Range-wide Listing of the Gopher Tortoise?

Gopher tortoise hatchling, Covington County, AL

As a Coastal Plain herpetologist actively working in longleaf pine ecosystems, I feel compelled to go on record with this issue, but I'm going to confine my remarks to my home state. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been petitioned to list the gopher tortoise throughout its range, which will affect Alabama, Florida, and Georgia (the species is already listed west of the Tombigbee River in SW Alabama and parts of Mississippi and Louisiana). [Update: Jeff Humphries reminds me that there are a few tortoises in South Carolina, which I knew, but overlooked.] The State of Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and the US Forest Service (USFS) got together and submitted very similarly-worded letters (here and here) to USFWS, putting a positive spin on what they are doing for gopher tortoises and outlining why they oppose expanded federal protection. I have good friends in both agencies and privately many will agree with me that neither ADCNR nor USFS earn very high marks for tortoise conservation. Funding and other resources are limited and it simply has not been a high priority.

ADCNR is doing some good things, like translocating tortoises to its lands where they have been extirpated, and funding research. Although it "protects" the tortoise under its Nongame Regulation, (meaning you can't keep, capture, sell, or shoot one), it pretty much ignores habitat degradation and/or destruction, which is by far the greatest threat to the tortoise. If you want to develop a tract of land in Baldwin County for example, and there are 100 tortoise burrows on it, your bulldozers can roll with impunity. Nobody's going to make you mitigate or translocate animals; you can just bury them where they are. The Nongame Regulation does not specifically exempt developers, but if the killing of tortoises is incidental to what would be considered an otherwise lawful activity, the state has traditionally looked the other way. Federal listing would change that. Another symptom of the disconnect with what ADCNR says and what ADCNR does is the agency's own Fred T. Stimpson Wildlife Sanctuary in Clarke County. After spending many days there in 2007, the only tortoise burrows I could find were a few along the margins of cultivated fields and roads, a result of insufficient prescribed fire in the adjacent forest. Federal listing would probably change a few management priorities there.

USFS is responsible for Alabama's largest gopher tortoise population, the one in Conecuh National Forest (CNF). They are restoring longleaf and doing other positive things for tortoises, but the current degraded condition of much of the habitat is preventing the much-reduced population from recovering as it should. No one has a handle on how many tortoises remain on the CNF or what the population trend is. Work on a forest-wide survey began this month by researchers from Auburn University with funding through ADCNR, which will yield valuable baseline information. The gopher tortoise evolved along with longleaf pine in a fire-maintained landscape, and the greatest problem with the CNF in recent years has been that insufficient prescribed burning is degrading the habitat so much that many areas are getting shrubby and no longer capable of supporting tortoises. NOAA's SPOT forecast website records and maps prescribed fires on federal lands in this region, including Eglin AFB and Blackwater State Forest in Florida, which are contiguous to CNF. As of today, January 10, those two nearby areas have conducted a total of 16 burns on the past nine consecutive days, but CNF has not had a single burn. I live here and although I am seeing smoke in the air from prescribed burns, it's all been from private lands so far in 2010. I have complained to the CNF District Ranger before about their not burning during the growing season, but weather permitting, every day should be a burn day, dormant season or growing season. It's just not getting done, and it's really starting to show on the landscape. Again, federal listing would change this.

Non-listed range of the gopher tortoise in Alabama, approximate.
Map by M. Bailey, based on EPA ecoregions.
(Mobile, Washington, and Choctaw County populations, not shown, are listed)

If we were talking about federal protection on public lands only, I would be unhesitating in my support of listing. The state and federal managing agencies clearly need to be prodded into doing better, and I don't see it happening any other way. It's only the implications of federal protection on private lands that give me some pause. Some landowners will view having a threatened species as a hardship, due to restrictions on land use. This constitutes a disincentive to manage in a manner compatible with the tortoise, and that is a clear negative for tortoise conservation. I would like to see landowners with gopher tortoises given tax breaks, provided they continue reasonably sound ecosystem management (i.e., plant longleaf, manage with fire, etc.). Some landowners are saying they have plenty of tortoises, and they can't possibly be threatened, but I suspect in most of these cases you could look all day and find few if any juvenile or subadult burrows. The presence of multiple adult tortoises on a tract does not necessarily equate to a healthy population. This is an animal that can live 80 years or longer. "Gophers" are tenacious, and can hang on in crappy habitat a long time, but they won't be reproducing if conditions are poor. And non-reproducing fragmented populations (i.e., those without a diversity of age classes) are doomed. Populations heavily skewed to old individuals meet USFWS' threatened status criteria of "likely becoming endangered in the foreseeable future."

I do think the gopher tortoise merits listing, but I'm not sure it would be altogether a good thing for populations on private lands unless steps are taken to alleviate landowner concerns. The Safe Harbor approach has been successfully implemented for red-cockaded woodpeckers and other species, and is one option that would be particularly attractive to landowners who currently have no or few tortoises. If listing occurs, I hope private landowners are rewarded in some form or another for maintaining habitat.

Adult gopher tortoise at its burrow, Wayne County, MS

Friday, January 8, 2010

Stephen Lyn Bales' Blog

I just discovered a fine natural history blog titled "Nature Calling" by writer/photographer/artist Tennessee naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales. Lots of very good photography and artwork. This illustration of one of my favorite birds appears to be for an upcoming book. Looking forward to learning more about that one.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alabama's Endangered Forever Wild Program

I'm all for preserving green space, not just natural areas but also agricultural lands threatened by sprawl. We need to figure out a way to do both, but limited conservation dollars are almost always best spent on natural functioning ecosystems before they are degraded.

I attended the very first Forever Wild meeting at Oak Mountain State Park back in 1992, after 83% of the voters statewide overwhelmingly approved the program. I was with The Nature Conservancy's Alabama Natural Heritage Program which in those days was housed in the ADCNR State Lands Division, and part of our job was to rank nominated sites for acquisition. I recall the excitement in the air as we looked forward to what the next 20 years (the life of the legislation) would bring. Eighteen years and 209,000 acres later, there's much to be pleased with, but so much more to be done. Frankly, the program has been underfunded to do what has really been needed. As Greg Lien of the Lands Division recently said, "We could purchase land at an identical pace for another 20 years and I know we would not have purchased too much land for the citizens of Alabama."

Greg is so right. Countless precious, unique, and absolutely irreplaceable natural and recreational lands across Alabama are being lost each year to development, intensive silviculture, and agriculture. We are nowhere near where we need to be in preserving land. But with the program coming up for renewal in 2012, politically powerful ALFA is suggesting that Forever Wild's protection of six tenths of one percent of the state is enough, and they want the money that's been funding public land acquisition to go toward paying farmers not to develop their private lands.

I recall then-ADCNR Commissioner Jim Martin telling the attendees of that first Forever Wild meeting that politics would never enter into the way the program was run, and indeed there have been no scandals or misspent funds in these 18 years. But with the program coming up for renewal, politics will determine whether the program continues (or is compromised). Legislators need to hear from their constituents on this critically important issue.

Fortunately, the state's newspapers have not been silent on this:

Mobile Press-Register: Leave Forever Wild Forever Out of Politics
"Legislators who understand the environmental and economic value of preserving land for the public should move quickly in the upcoming session to ensure that no special interests destroy Forever Wild and that voters get the chance to again express their support for its mission."
Montgomery Advertiser: Don't Allow Forever Wild to Lapse
"The Alabama Legislature should renew the Forever Wild program, one of the most successful efforts to protect natural resources for public use in the nation. The program must be reauthorized by the Legislature by 2012 or it will expire."

Anniston Star: Hands Off Forever Wild
"When comparing Alabama's efforts to what other states have done, the state is far behind. Consider Alabama's neighbors. Mississippi has permanently protected nearly 6 percent of its land. Tennessee, 7.25 percent. Georgia, 6.99 percent. Florida, more than 21 percent.

And Alabama? Only more than 4 percent.

We have a long way to go before Forever Wild's mission will be served."

Florence Times Daily: Forever Wild Loses
"Forever Wild has performed admirably since its inception by operating scandal-free and never paying more than the appraised value for property. Tens of thousands of people visit the properties every year. The program is government at its best."

Huntsville Times: Forever Wild Land Preservation Program Faces Sunset
"Forever Wild can't continue if its resources are gutted for other purposes. Forever Wild's allocations off trust fund's interest have also wildly fluctuated with the economy ($400,000 in 2008; $10 million in 2007.) The Alabama Trust Fund should be absolutely the last resort if raiding it would jeopardize this vital public land program."