The Gopher tortoise, a species native to the southeastern United States, is facing a dire situation as its habitat is rapidly disappearing. This species has been a crucial part of the ecosystem for millions of years, but due to human development, agriculture, climate change, invasive species, and other factors, the Gopher tortoise population has declined dramatically and many argue that the species should be placed on the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
The situation has become so dire that environmental groups are now taking legal action against the FWS for not including the Gopher tortoise on the endangered species list in four southern states.
The Gopher tortoise has a rich history in the United States. These tortoises were once found in more than 92 million acres of land in the southeastern U.S., stretching from eastern Louisiana to the Atlantic coast, NPR reports.
The species has been around for millions of years and is considered a keystone species in the longleaf pine ecosystem. Gopher tortoises have an important role in maintaining the habitat by creating burrows, which are used by many other species, according to National Geographic. These burrows also help prevent wildfires by creating firebreaks, and they provide shelter and refuge for many animals during extreme weather conditions.
Despite the importance of Gopher tortoises, their population has declined rapidly in recent years. The tortoises have lost 97% of their longleaf pine savannas where they lived for millions of years, WGCU. In addition, the FWS has projected that 75% of the current Gopher tortoise population will be lost by 2100.
“Without lifesaving Endangered Species Act protection for our gopher tortoises, urban sprawl will keep driving them ever closer to extinction,” said attorney Elise Bennett, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Florida director.
This decline of this species is mainly due to:
- Habitat Loss: The primary threat to the Gopher tortoise is habitat loss, mainly caused by human development, which has led to the fragmentation and destruction of their natural habitat, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports.
- Climate Change: Climate change is affecting the Gopher tortoise as rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns alter the availability of food and water.
- Invasive Species: Invasive species, such as fire ants and feral hogs, are also a significant threat to Gopher tortoises. These invasive species compete with the tortoises for food and habitat and can also cause direct harm to the tortoises.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that urbanization and development, major road construction, incompatible and/or insufficient habitat management, and certain types of agriculture negatively impact the gopher tortoise and its habitat. It also noted that many forest landowners create and maintain areas of open pine conditions that the tortoise requires, conduct tortoise burrow surveys, conduct research, and implement best management practices that benefit the gopher tortoise. According to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, sustainably managed, private working forests, which make up about 80 percent of potential gopher tortoise habitat, are likely to remain forests for the foreseeable future and these lands are important to the resilience and future of the species. Public land managers, such as the Florida Forest Service, also work to maintain and enhance gopher tortoise habitat.
Efforts to protect the Gopher tortoise have been underway for some time, but progress has been slow. The tortoises are listed as endangered in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and western Alabama, unfortunately efforts to list them in their eastern range have proved futile. The FWS concluded in October 2022 that “the risk factors acting on the gopher tortoise and its habitat, either singly or in combination, are not of sufficient imminence, scope, or magnitude” to warrant threatened or endangered status.
“Denying gopher tortoises the protection they need to survive is indefensible,” said Bennett. “It ignores devastating urban sprawl that’s decimated the tortoise’s habitat and will continue to drive the species ever closer to extinction.”
Clearly, this position must change if we are to save this species from extinction. Take a stand for the Gopher tortoise and help us ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant it protections of the Endangered Species Act. Click below and make a difference!Whizzco