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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Gopher Tortoise

The gopher tortoise is a large burrowing tortoise that occurs in upland pine forests of the southeastern United States. The gopher tortoise is one of five tortoise species native to North America and the only tortoise species east of the Mississippi River. The sex of individual tortoises can usually be determined by shell dimensions. A male tortoise has a greater degree of lower shell concavity, and a longer gular projection. However, the sex of tortoises at maturity size is difficult to determine (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1990).

Appearance

The gopher tortoise typically has a domed, brown to grayish-black carapace (top shell) approximately 10-15 inches in length and weighs approximately 9-13 pounds lbs. The plastron (bottom shell) is yellowish and hingeless. A fossorial species (a species adapted to digging and living primarily underground), its hind feet are often described as elephantine or stumpy (round and pad-like), and the forelimbs are shovel-like, with claws used for digging. In comparison to females, males are smaller; usually have a larger gland under the chin, a longer gular projection, and more deeply concave plastron. Hatchlings are about 2 inches in length, with a softer, yellow-orange shell. Hatchling gopher tortoises are classified as those less than 2.4 inches in straight-line carapace length (CL), juveniles as those greater than 2.4 inches to 5.1 inches in CL, subadults as those greater than 5.1 inches to 8.6 inches in CL, and adults as those tortoises 8.7 inches in CL or greater. 

Habitat

Typical gopher tortoise habitat consists of an open canopy with a diverse array of groundcover vegetation occurring on well-drained, sandy soils with widely spaced trees and shrubs. The gopher tortoise is generally associated with southern pine tree species including longleaf pine, loblolly pine and slash pine. Natural community associations include dry uplands such as sandhills and scrub, longleaf pine savannas, upland hammocks, pine flatwoods, dry prairie, coastal grasslands and dunes, mixed hardwood-pine communities, and a variety of disturbed plant communities.  

Diet

Gopher tortoises forage mostly on foliage, seeds, and fruits of grasses and forbs, generally in an area of about 150 feet surrounding burrows. Although they feed primarily on broadleaf grasses, wiregrass, asters, legumes, and fruit, they are known to eat more than 300 species of plants. The diet of adults resembles that of a generalist herbivore, with at least some preference for certain plants over others, and may also include insects and carrion. Legumes are thought to be particularly important for re-conditioning females after egg laying, and it has been shown that clutch sizes and percent of gravid females were lowest in areas with low percent cover of legumes. Studies of gopher tortoise stomach content suggest an opportunistic intake of calcium-rich shells and stones that may provide important nutritional supplements for reproductive female gopher tortoises. Juvenile gopher tortoises tend to forage on fewer plant species, eat fewer grasses, and select more forbs, including legumes, than adults.

Range

The gopher tortoise occurs in the Southeastern Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from southern South Carolina west through Georgia, the Florida panhandle, Alabama, and Mississippi to eastern Louisiana, and south through peninsular Florida. The range of the gopher tortoise generally aligns with the historic range of the longleaf pine ecosystem. The core of the current distribution of the gopher tortoise occurs in the eastern portion of the range and includes peninsular Florida and southern Georgia. The gopher tortoise is more widespread and abundant in the core of its distribution, where these areas have been referred to as the “central” portion of the tortoise’s geographic extent previously in the literature and more recently as east Georgia, west Georgia and peninsular Florida genetic units.

See the populations' resiliency by clicking on this interactive map. 

Conservation Challenges

The primary threats to the gopher tortoise are fragmentation, destruction, and modification of its habitat, including urbanization. Other threats include the following: mortality due to vehicle strikes; effects of climate change including increased drought and extreme high temperatures, sea level rise, and migration of human populations from inundated coastal areas; nonnative invasive species , disease, and predation (mainly on nests and hatchlings). Increased drought and high temperatures also reduce the number of days that prescribed fire can be used for habitat management, which leads to further degradation and loss of habitat. 

2022 Notice of Findings

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined the eastern and western portions of the gopher tortoise’s range meet the criteria of Distinct Population Segments (DPS) under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Service found the eastern DPS no longer meets the criteria for ESA listing and is therefore withdrawing the eastern DPS as a candidate. The gopher tortoise is protected by state regulations range-wide. If state protections for the species change in the future, especially in the core areas of the species, a reevaluation of the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms may be required. Additionally, the Service confirms that the western DPS continues to meet the definition of a threatened species under the ESA. The determination comes after a rigorous analysis of the best available scientific data and commercial information.   

The best available data used in the Species Status Assessment indicates gopher tortoise populations in the eastern DPS, including the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and most of Alabama, are robust. The Service also determined the western portion of the gopher tortoise range (western Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) to be a DPS and confirmed the western DPS will retain its threatened status.

Eastern Distinct Population Segment

Although threats including habitat loss and fragmentation due to urbanization, climate warming, sea-level rise and habitat management affect the populations, many of these populations are in good condition.  In addition, habitat restoration efforts, implementation of best management practices, and conservation measures to benefit the gopher tortoise have contributed to the current condition of the species.  Future projections of the species’ condition show that many healthy populations will remain across the range .

Western Distinct Population Segment

In terms of the estimated rangewide number of gopher tortoises, the majority of gopher tortoise individuals and populations are found in the eastern DPS. Only 8 percent of the estimated rangewide population in the western portion of the range and includes many small, isolated populations.Populations in the western portion of the range are characterized by life-history differences including smaller clutch size, lower hatch rate, and larger home range, likely related to the clay soil and poorer quality habitat in the western portion of the range. Populations in the western DPS exhibit lower resiliency and are more vulnerable to catastrophic events. 

Partnership, Research, and Projects

The gopher tortoise is protected in all states where it occurs (state-listed as threatened in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida; state-listed as endangered in South Carolina; and protected as a non-game species in Alabama).  Populations in the western DPS are federally listed as threatened and receive protections under the ESA. 

Other Federal agencies have emphasized conservation actions to benefit the gopher tortoise, including the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) programs of technical and financial assistance to private landowners to implement management actions for gopher tortoise and its habitat through the Working Lands For Wildlife program and the Longleaf Pine Initiative. Several national forests (NFs) (Ocala, Desoto, Conecuh, and Apalachicola NFs) occur within the range of the species and provide important habitat conservation.  In particular, the Desoto NF in Mississippi has implemented longleaf pine restoration and juvenile head-starting efforts.  

The Department of Defense (DoD) is an important partner in gopher tortoise conservation as well.  The Gopher Tortoise Conservation and Crediting Strategy is a conservation initiative designed to balance military mission activities and gopher tortoise conservation on DoD installations in the Southeast to provide a net conservation benefit to the species.  The gopher tortoise occurs on 31 DoD sites across the species’ range.  Most include the gopher tortoise in Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans and have robust habitat management programs that include the application of prescribed fire.  

The Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program has facilitated habitat management actions to benefit gopher tortoise on approximately 65,000 acres of privately-owned lands across the range of the species from 2010 to 2019.  In addition, potential gopher tortoise habitat occurs on several National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) (Merritt Island, Lake Wales Ridge, Lower Suwannee, St. Marks NWRs) throughout the range of the species and those refuges implement habitat restoration activities to benefit gopher tortoise.   

Efforts with private landowners, industry groups and non-governmental organizations have also improved gopher tortoise habitat across the range of the species.  Approximately 80% of potential gopher tortoise habitat is in private lands that are managed for forest production, providing opportunities for forestry and silviculture-related conservation actions.  Several Service-approved agreements are also in place to provide for the conservation of the gopher tortoise, including Memorandum of Agreements, the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Crediting Strategy, several Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances and a rangewide Candidate Conservation Agreement.  Since 2011, approximately 120,000 acres of potential gopher tortoise habitat on private lands has been protected in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina and approximately 26,740 acres have been protected on federal lands.  In addition, the Service’s Rangewide Conservation Strategy (2013), industry best management practices, and the Gopher Tortoise Initiative guide public and private partnerships and actions to benefit the species.  Ongoing translocations of gopher tortoises and head-starting of juvenile tortoises ahead of releases are important components of the overall gopher tortoise conservation efforts. 

Community Involvement

The Service has scheduled a virtual public informational meeting on December 13th, 2022, from 7:00 – 9:00pm Eastern Time (ET) to present information to the public on the Notice of Findings for the gopher tortoise. There is no formal comment period when the Service issues a Notice of Findings but recognizing the complexity of these findings, we have scheduled this virtual public informational meeting to present the findings and address questions on gopher tortoise conservation and management.   

The Service will hold the virtual public meeting via the Zoom online platform so that participants can attend remotely. During the virtual public meeting, attendees can join by computer or phone. The virtual public meeting will start with a brief presentation by Service staff, followed by an opportunity for attendees to ask questions.  

We recommend that members of the public log into the Zoom meeting platform 5 minutes prior to the beginning of the presentation to ensure that they can connect. If using the phone-only option, participants will be able to listen to the virtual public meeting, but they will not view the presentation. Instructions will be given regarding how participants will be able to provide their questions during the meeting. 

*For security purposes, registration is required. To listen and view the meeting via Zoom, listen to the meeting by telephone, or provide questions during the meeting by Zoom or telephone, you must register. 

*Interested members of the public not familiar with the Zoom platform should view the Zoom video tutorials (https://learn-zoom.us/show-me) prior to the public meeting. 

*If you have technical difficulties registering for the meeting or joining the meeting on December 13th, please email megan.stone@empsi.com

 

Instructions for Attending the Virtual Public Meeting: 

For Participants Joining by Zoom Web Platform or Zoom App:  

1. Please pre-register using the link provided below.  

https://empsi.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN__2hhalK7RBug77GxP7-RzA  

2. After registration, participants will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.  

3. On the day of the meeting, please join using the information contained in your confirmation email.  

For Participants Joining by Phone:  

1. Register for the meeting (see above). On the day of your meeting, call in using one of the toll-free phone numbers listed below. You will be prompted to enter your Webinar ID. Enter your Webinar ID from your confirmation email and press the # key. 

2. You will then be prompted: “Enter your Participant ID followed by #. Otherwise just press #.” Phone-only participants will not receive an individualized Participant ID, so just press the # key.  

3. You will then be prompted: “Enter your Password followed by #. Otherwise just press #.” Enter the Passcode from your confirmation email and press the # key.  

4. You will be directly joined to the meeting. If the meeting has not started, you will be on hold until the meeting begins. 

Call-in Numbers (for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location): 

 

Reasonable Accommodations 

The Service is committed to providing access to the virtual public meeting for all participants. Closed captioning will be available during the public meeting. Further, a full audio and video recording and transcript of the public meeting will be posted online at https://www.fws.gov/project/gopher-tortoise after the meeting. Participants will also have access to live audio during the public meeting via their telephone or computer speakers. An accessible version of the Service’s public meeting presentation will also be posted online at https://www.fws.gov/project/gopher-tortoise after the meeting.  

 

How You Can Help

If you are lucky enough to see a gopher tortoise in your backyard, do not touch it. They are beautiful to watch but look from a distance. Do your best not to disturb its burrow. Do not do anything to block the burrow’s entrance or exit; this would lead to the tortoise’s demise.   

No matter where you live, you can help gopher tortoises by working with agencies to manage tortoise habitat. Work with local, county and state elected officials to set aside habitat for wildlife, and when compatible, humans' recreation and enjoyment. Ask for green spaces and corridors and wildlife tunnels in and around developments. Encourage local governments to require listed species surveys and proof of issuance of required wildlife permits before they issue clearing or building permits. Also, help your friends and neighbors learn about this species and the many other fascinating animals and plants found in your area.

The majority of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate hands, and we really need your help identifying the status of gopher tortoises on your land to better assess populations and trends. Fire helps maintain good habitat conditions for tortoises. If your land is primarily silviculture (pine tree farming), you can help gopher tortoises by prescribed burning and tree thinning to achieve the open habitat that tortoises need. 

A densely planted stand is not healthy for gopher tortoises, as too many trees reduce sunlight that reaches the forest floor and reduces the grassy ground cover needed to survive. Please be sure to consult your state forestry office to get necessary information and permits. In natural sandhill habitat, prescribed burning is recommended every three to five years. In palmetto flatwoods habitat, more frequent burns may be necessary. If you can't burn to rejuvenate tortoise habitat, regularly mow, clear out woody shrubs and thin trees.  

Subject Matter Experts

Eastern DPS:  Jo Emanuel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Ecological Services Field Office, jo_emanuel@fws.gov  

Western DPS:  John Tupy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mississippi Ecological Services Field Office, john_tupy@fws.gov 

Federal Register Notices

 https://www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection

 https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/current 

http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/collection.action?collectionCode=FR

 

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Gopher Tortoise
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