July 27, 2011

Gopher Tortoise Put On Waiting List For Protection

Federal wildlife officials said on Tuesday that the gopher tortoise has been listed as eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but limited funding could prevent the tortoise from being put on the list at this time.

Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director for the Southeast, said there is sufficient scientific data to list the gopher tortoise as threatened in parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

"But we do not have the resources to pursue the listing process at this time," she told reporters during a conference call.

The gopher tortoise will join a list of 251 other species designated as candidates for federal protection.

"There will be no land use changes for anyone as the result of this announcement," Dohner told reporters. "The finding does not affect private or public landowners with new regulations."

Officials said it could be up to five years before the agency conducts studies and develops rules to give the tortoise federal protection in the Southeast.

"When you have a species like the Gopher tortoise that has a lot of potential habitat it can cost more than $300,000 to develop a (protection) proposal," Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the Florida division of the agency, said in a statement. "It's on the list, it needs to be listed, but it really is in the bottom third of the priority."

Federal officials plan to work with private landowners on voluntary conservation efforts that could be partially funded by federal grants in the meantime.

The gopher tortoise is already listed as threatened in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and western Alabama. 

Federal officials said the tortoise is threatened by habitat loss, herbicides used in forestry and other factors.

The tortoises live in long-leaf pine forests and dig burrows up to 23 feet deep, which provide refuge for up to 360 other species, including indigo snakes, skunks and rabbits.

"The real challenge now is to fine tune on-the-ground management and reach out to more private landowners, who can have a profound impact on recovery for all species in this ecosystem," Dohner told reporters.


Image Caption: A gopher tortoise makes its way down the hill behind the NASA KSC News Center. The sandy soils of Florida are prime habitat for the species, the only one in Florida. Gopher tortoises thrive in many of our ecosystems, pine-oak sandhills, oak hammocks, prairies, flatwoods and coastal dunes. This and other wildlife abound throughout KSC as it shares a boundary with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to some of the nation's rarest and most unusual species of wildlife. The wildlife refuge is a habitat for more than 310 species of birds, 25 mammals, 117 fishes and 65 amphibians and reptiles. In addition, the Refuge supports 19 endangered or threatened wildlife species on Federal or State lists, more than any other single refuge in the U.S. Gopher tortoises are protected by law in Florida and are listed as a Species of Special Concern. Credit: NASA


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