COVINGTON Co., Ala. (WBRC) - Gopher tortoise conservation reached a new level recently when the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) teamed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Eckerd College and Birmingham Zoo to release 98 young tortoises into the Geneva State Forest Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Covington County.
The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species, which impacts about 365 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates in the sandy-soil habitat across their southeastern range.
WFF staff, Eckerd College representatives and Birmingham Zoo staff constructed starter burrows at the WMA in preparation for the release.
Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship, WFF Director Chuck Sykes, USFWS Southeast Region Director Leopoldo “Leo” Miranda-Castro, USFWS Alabama Section 6 Coordinator Shannon Holbrook, and John Tupy, Gopher Tortoise Lead for the federally listed range out of the USFWS Hattiesburg office in Mississippi, participated in the tortoise release.
Goessling said pioneering work done by Guyer, professor emeritus at Auburn University, revealed that population density of gopher tortoises is an integral part of a viable population of the animals.
“When the state acquired this land, we started to think about how to conserve gopher tortoises here,” Goessling said. “It became clear that, while the number of tortoises here is probably viable, the density was far below what would normally be viable for a species in a habitat like this – open, high pines, xeric (low moisture) soils and maintained with prescribed fire. Craig had an idea a decade ago of how to intensively manage populations that were large enough but not dense enough with tortoises scattered in numerous small groups across large areas.”
WFF’s Ericha Nix, a non-game biologist who leads the gopher tortoise project team, said gopher tortoises have been petitioned for listing as threatened or endangered under USFWS guidelines.
“We looked at our lands to be proactive and create gopher tortoise populations,” Nix said. “We had surveys done on our public lands and found that some of our lands have 100 to 200 tortoises, but they don’t have the density needed to be viable. We had to open this place up extensively,” Hayes said. “We couldn’t plant our wildlife openings because of all the gopher tortoise burrows in those areas. We needed more open property for the tortoises to utilize, so we opened the canopy to get some light on the forest floor. With prescribed fire, we were able to reclaim our wildlife openings and plant food sources for the other wildlife to use.
“I love being a part of this. What’s good for gopher tortoises is good for turkey, quail and deer.”