Saving Georgia’s state reptile: Partnership makes headway for gopher tortoise

By David Pendered

A public-private, preemptive effort to save the at-risk gopher tortoise has made considerable headway as it counts down to its 2020 goal to conserve habitat and protect turtle colonies, according to a new federal report.

gopher tortoise, 3

An effort to sustain the gopher turtle is making strides as a public-private partnership that aims to conserve 100,000 acres of natural habitat in South Georgia. Credit: truesouth.com

The effort is preemptive in that it aims to prevent the gopher tortoise from reaching the threatened or endangered species lists. If that happens, observers expect the ensuing regulations could hamper economic development, according to an Aug. 22 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Boosting the Gopher Tortoise.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce joined the initiative in 2015. That was the year Georgia lost its bid for Volvo to build a manufacturing plant near Savannah. Gopher turtles were on the Georgia site. Evidently, South Carolina touted the environmental hurdles facing Volvo if the automaker were to take the Savannah-area site, according to the FWS report. Volvo announced in May 2015 it would build its $500 million plant near Charleston. Georgia’s business community took note.

“We all have the same objective: Can we save this critter without more regulation?” Doug Miell, the chamber’s energy and natural resources, said in the report. “We’re all smart enough to see that more regulations could be the future if we don’t work this out.”

The Gopher Tortoise Initiative was unveiled in December 2014. Founding partners included the state and federal governments, The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund and the Georgia Conservancy.

gopher tortoise range map

Gopher tortoises prefer the well-drained, sandy soils common from the Savannah River into Louisiana. They can grow up to 15 pounds and live 80 years in the wild, according to the federal government. Credit: fws.gov

The plan calls for raising a total of $150 million in public-private funds – $50 million apiece from federal, state and private partners. That’s the estimated cost to purchase and conserve about 100,000 acres in South Georgia. The land is to shelter 65 gopher turtle populations. The final objective is to prove the species is flourishing in the wild – keeping it off the threatened or endangered species lists.

To date, $90 million has been pledged or spent. About 39,000 acres have been secured, and 46 “viable” populations have been protected, according to the FWS report. The definition of viable is one that has enough adults to sustain the colony.

This effort expands on the great affection some Georgians have for gopher tortoises. The Georgia Legislature spoke reverently of the tortoise in 1989, passing House Bill 531 to make the gopher tortoise Georgia’s official state reptile – and observing the species may be extinct by 2000 outside of protected areas:

  • “WHEREAS, the gopher tortoise benefits the ecology by digging burrows up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep which provides year-round shelter from predators and weather for more than three dozen other animal species, including some threatened species; and…
  • “WHEREAS, recent studies indicate that the gopher tortoise population is in decline due to mankind’s activities, and that by the year 2000 the gopher tortoise may not exist outside of protected areas; and
  • “WHEREAS, this ancient and ecologically beneficial reptile is deserving of the attention and appreciation of the citizens of this state by designation as the official state reptile.”
gopher turtle, 2

Gopher tortoises provide shelter from predators and weather for some 360 animal species in burrows that can be up to 23 feet deep and 52 feet long, according to the federal government. Credit: http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu

As it turns out, the gopher turtle is responsible for helping many more than a few dozen animal species. The number is closer to 360, according to a report by The Nature Conservancy. That’s because the gopher tortoise is a developer in its realm.

“[T]he way they burrow in the sand, they’re like apartment builders for themselves and hundreds of other species,” Steve Friedman, of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, said in the TNC report.

Georgia’s federally approved State Wildlife Action Plan contains multiple references to the gopher tortoise. Such as, fire ants can kill them. Unmanaged off-road vehicles crush and kill them. People along the Savannah River killed and ate them, depleting the population.

Gopher burrows are home to critters with exotic names including the little gopher tortoise scarab beetle; gopher tortoise hister beetle; gopher tortoise burrow noctoid moth; gopher tortoise robber fly; and, not to overlook, the onthophagus tortoise commensal scarab beetle.

gopher tortoise moth

The gopher tortoise moth is one of more than 360 species that benefit from the long tunnels the tortoises excavate. Credit: John Pickering via discoverlife.org

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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