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


Carol said...

I would love to have one living here. Unfortunately..I am in a Hammock area..very wet..

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately listing the gopher tortoise in MS hasn't lead to it's recovery. Most likely it is still declining and few people are ever charged with intentionally killing a gopher tortoise. While it looks good in theory, practice falls far short.

Mark Bailey said...

I fully agree that listing has not led to recovery in MS, but I think the species would be worse off if the Forest Service was not required to manage for them. I (and others) conducted a tortoise survey on about 9,000 acres of the best tortoise soils of the DeSoto National Forest in 2007-08, and much of that, while not in excellent condition, was at least being managed with tortoise habitat improvement as one objective. Most sites still had poor (if any) recruitment of younger age classes, but a few were doing fairly well. The biggest problem on both the DeSoto and Conecuh NFs is the extensive coverage of yaupon and other shrubs and off-site trees that have gotten established following fire suppression or seasonally inappropriate fire. If the landscape could be managed with an aggressive fire program to more or less recreate the natural condition of a grassy woodland, tortoises could thrive, and in some areas this is being accomplished. But without the legal requirement to recover the tortoise, I doubt the DeSoto would have made the progress it has.

Anonymous said...

As a whole (though exceptions exist) USFWS is primarily steadfast with a policy of no net loss of a species and is doing little with most species to see population increases. Mark points out that just because they are on public land does not provide insurance for the species..true with tortoises, rcw, etc. We can't rely on public land in the SE to recover these species. Need to incentivive species (cap and trade for about a no net loss of sandhills?) and remove disincentive such as through Safe Harbor. Either way, they need to be looking at data on subadults/juveniles then just on adults. My guess is it is not a pretty picture for the tortoise.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mark: Do you have any idea how the GT is doing at Fort Rucker? 65K acres in middle Coastal Plains. I worked (1989-1998) at Fort Benning which has a fairly robust GT population primarily due to an active GS burn policy guided by recovery guidelines for the RCW. The bottom line is GS fire applied on a 3 to 5 year rotation and the LF system overall will benefit the entire ecosystem. I have limited information on Rucker and was wondering what you may know. War Eagle, Tom Brooks

Mark Bailey said...

Based on my admittedly limited experience on both installations, Fort Rucker's burning program is not as ecologically driven as Ft. Benning's. In 2002 when I spent some time on Ft. Rucker, the burn program struck me as having more of a fuel control objective rather than one of community restoration/maintenance. But the impact area is pretty big, burns regularly, and from the looks of it, probably has a thriving tortoise population, but you can't get access to it. And there's a lot of off-site loblolly plantation that formerly had tortoises. As you say, Ft. Benning is also burning for red-cockaded woodpeckers; Ft. Rucker does not have to consider that factor. I suspect Ft. Rucker is the second largest GT population in Alabama, after Conecuh NF, but a full census has not been done on either. In 2002 we found a remnant population of southeastern pocket gophers on Ft. Rucker, and they are vanishing from many areas where fire is not being adequately applied. You're right about growing season burns in longleaf--that's what's needed wherever tortoises occur. I know some good folks at Ft. Rucker who are interested in longleaf restoration and tortoise management, and I suspect we'll see things moving more in that direction.