North Florida Ecological Services Office
Southeast Region

Federal Register Notice

Literature Cited in 12-month Finding - PDF - 145KB

Opening Teleconference Remarks by Cindy Dohner, U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Regional Director, July 26, 2011 - PDF - 176KB

Frequently Asked Questions - Service 12-Month Finding on Petition to List the
Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
in the Eastern Portion of its Range

Updated: July 26, 2011

Q1: What is a petition?

A1:  A petition is a formal request by interested parties to ask the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to list, reclassify, or delist a species on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants, and/or to revise critical habitat designation.

Q2: What is a 12-month Finding?

A2: Section 4(b) of the ESA requires the Service to make a finding on whether a petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted; this is referred to as a 90-day finding.  If the Service finds the petition presents substantial information indicating that the Service should consider a species for listing, the Act requires the Service to initiate a formal status review.  During the status review, the Service collects and analyzes data to assess the species’ status.  At the end of the 12-month period, the Service determines whether the listing is or is not warranted; this is referred to as the 12-month finding.  A warranted finding can be incorporated into a proposed listing or, if a prompt proposal is precluded by other listing activities, the proposal may be deferred; this is a “warranted but precluded” finding.

Q3: Who petitioned the Service and what did they request?

A3:  On January 25, 2006, the Service received a petition asking us list the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range as threatened under the Act and to designate critical habitat.  The petition was submitted by Mr. Brett Paben, of Wildlaw, on behalf of Save Our Big Scrub, Inc. and Wild South, and included supporting information regarding the potential causes of decline for the gopher tortoise in the eastern United States.  On September 9, 2009, we completed and published a 90-Day Finding on a Petition to List the Eastern Population of the Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) as Threatened.  That initiated a status review to determine if listing the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of the range was warranted.  We solicited scientific and commercial data and other information regarding the status of and threats facing the gopher tortoise throughout all of its range.  As a result of information received, we believe listing is warranted throughout its range.

Q4:  What are gopher tortoises and where do they live?

A4:  The gopher tortoise is one of four living North American tortoise species and the only one indigenous to the southeastern United States.  The gopher tortoise lives in the southeastern Coastal Plain from southern South Carolina to extreme southeastern Louisiana.  Gopher tortoises need well-drained, sandy soils for burrowing and nest construction, an abundance of herbaceous ground cover for food, and a generally open canopy that allows sunlight to reach the forest floor.  Gopher tortoises live in longleaf pine and oak uplands, xeric hammock, sand pine and oak ridges (beach scrub), and disturbed habitat, such as along road edges or in power line rights of way where overstory has been removed.

Q5:  What did the Service conclude?

A5:  After a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, the Service found that the tortoise faces significant threats and that placing the gopher tortoise on the federal list of threatened and endangered species was warranted but precluded by higher priority listing actions.  The Service also concluded that the current threatened status of the tortoise in the western portion of its range was accurate.

Q6:  What area makes up the eastern portion of the gopher tortoise’s range?

A6:  The eastern portion of the gopher tortoise’s range includes Alabama (east of the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers), Florida, Georgia, and southern South Carolina.  In these areas, the gopher tortoise will become a candidate species for listing under the ESA.  In the other (western portion) range states (i.e., west of the Tombigbee River in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) this species will continue to be listed as threatened under the ESA. 

Q7:  What are the primary threats to the gopher tortoise identified in the 12-month finding?

A7:  Threats are covered in detail under the discussion of Factors A, C, D, and E of the finding and include habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation; predation; inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms; and incompatible use of herbicides in forest management activities.

Q8:  What does the finding mean for tortoises where they are currently listed as threatened west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi?

A8:  The listed range of the gopher tortoise is not affected by the 12-month finding.  The protective measures of the ESA will remain in place for tortoises where they are listed as threatened.

Q9:  What did the Service consider in reaching its conclusion and finding?

A9:  In making this finding, the Service conducted a thorough status review using the best available scientific and commercial information in accordance with the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR): 50 CFR 424.14(c).  This included any new data or information provided during the public comment period, as well as, information gathered regarding existing conservation efforts for either the gopher tortoise or the longleaf-wiregrass ecosystem.

Q10:  Why was there a delay in the issuance of a 12-mo finding?

A10:  Funding constraints precluded the Service from initiating the processing of the petition in a timely manner.  Funding became available in 2007;  however, the scope and magnitude of the information received, as well as internal coordination, resulted in additional delays in preparing the finding.  This notice constitutes the Service’s warranted but precluded finding in response to the petition to list the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range by Mr. Paben on January 25, 2006.

Q11:  What is the next step?

A11:  While the Service found the petitioned action – listing the gopher tortoise as threatened in the eastern portion of its range – was warranted, sufficient funds are not yet available to initiate the development of a proposed rule due to higher priority actions such as listing-related actions pursuant to court orders and judicially-approved settlement agreements.  The Service intends to initiate a rulemaking when it completes these higher priorities and has the necessary resources to do so. 

The gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range will be placed on the Service’s candidate species list until such time as funding becomes available to initiate the proposed listing rulemaking process.  The tortoise in the western portion of its range will continue to be protected as a threatened species.

Q12:  What is a candidate species?

A12:  Candidate species are plants and animals for which the Service has sufficient information on their biological status and threats to propose them for listing as endangered or threatened under the ESA, but for which development of a proposed listing regulation is precluded by higher priority listing actions to address species in greater need.  Candidate species receive no statutory protection under the ESA. The Service encourages voluntary cooperative conservation efforts for these species because they are, by definition, species that warrant future protection under the ESA.

Q13:  Given how many species are already on the candidate list, how long is it likely to be before the gopher tortoise will be proposed for protection under the ESA in the eastern portion of its range?

A13:  The Service has been making steady progress in recent years to prepare listing proposals for candidate species. In any given fiscal year, multiple factors dictate how much work the Service can undertake to prepare proposed listing documents.  The resources available for listing actions are determined through the annual Congressional appropriations process.  The number of listing actions the Service can undertake also is influenced by the complexity of those actions, which can vary widely.  Thus, it is difficult to predict how long it might be before the Service prepares a proposed rule for the eastern population of the gopher tortoise.  The Service will, however, review its status annually and work with states, other federal agencies, private landowners, and other partners to step up efforts to conserve the species.

Q14:  What conservation action might be recommended for gopher tortoises?

A14:  There are many conservation actions that are likely to reduce or eliminate some of the threats identified by the Service in the 12-month finding.  The protection of additional gopher tortoise habitat may be appropriate in some locations, while use of prescribed fire to restore and maintain suitable habitat will be necessary throughout much of the tortoise’s range.  In some circumstances, predator control may be appropriate to enhance reproductive success.  Promulgation, implementation, and enforcement of  regulations that protect tortoise’s and their habitat are needed and management plans need to be developed that establish tortoise conservation targets, timeframes, and funding necessary to successfully meet the conservation targets.  Efforts to reduce road mortality need to be undertaken in high risk areas.  Additionally, the timing and extent of herbicide use during silvicultural activities should be considered with other management opportunities to encourage maintenance of tortoise habitat.    

Q15:  What conservation tools are available for candidate species?

A15:  The Service and other federal partners have ability to provide technical and financial assistance for conservation of candidate species on private land.  The Service provides financial and technical assistance to landowners seeking to conserve candidate species on their land through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.   Additional financial assistance is available through various Service grants and agreements, as well as through Farm Bill and Department of Defense programs.  In addition, the Service has the ability to take advantage of the additional management flexibility afforded to candidate species by facilitating development and implementation of Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCAs) and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs).

CCAs are formal, voluntary agreements between the Service and one or more parties to address the conservation needs of one or more candidate species.  Participants voluntarily commit to implement specific actions designed to remove or reduce threats to the covered species.  CCAs can involve both federal and non-federal lands.  In some cases, these agreements have been so successful that listing the species proved to be unnecessary.  For non-federal landowners seeking regulatory assurances, CCAAs are an effective tool.  A CCAA provides participating property owners with a permit containing assurances that if they engage in certain conservation actions for species included in the agreement, they will not be required to implement additional conservation measures beyond those in the CCAA in the event the species becomes listed.  Also, additional land, water, or resource use limitations will not be imposed on them should the species become listed in the future, unless they consent to the change. For additional information on these tools, see

Q16:  Is there a chance that the Service will not list the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range in the future even though the 12-month finding concluded that listing it as threatened was warranted?

A16:  The 12-month finding identified numerous threats that remain for the gopher tortoise and its habitat.  As required for all petitioned species, up until the time a proposed rulemaking is published, the Service will annually review the status of the gopher tortoise to assess if listing is still warranted.  If the threats to the species have been sufficiently reduced or removed, the Service could conclude that listing was no longer appropriate and remove it from the candidate status.

Q17:  What happens between now and the time the Service develops a rule to list the gopher tortoise?

A17:  The Service intends to work closely with many partners to develop conservation strategies for the gopher tortoise while it is a candidate species.  It can implement conservation actions with our partners through CCAs and CCAAs, described above.  The Service can also enter into cooperative agreements for tortoise conservation with landowners through our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.  Financial assistance may also be available from other federal conservation programs identified above.

Q18:  Will the public have an opportunity to comment on the future proposal to list the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range?

A18:  Yes.  Any future proposal to add the gopher tortoise to the federal list of threatened and endangered species throughout its range will include a formal proposed rulemaking process with ample opportunity for public review and comment. 

Q19:  Does the 12-month finding result in new regulations for gopher tortoises?

A19:  No.  The Service’s warranted but precluded finding results in the tortoise in the eastern portion of its range (east of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers) being designated as a candidate species.  The ESA does not explicitly protect candidate species nor does the Service’s implementing regulations address candidate species.  The protective measures of the ESA will remain in place and unchanged for gopher tortoises in the western portion of the range where they are now listed as threatened.

Q20:  Does the 12-month finding affect implementation of the State of Florida’s Gopher Tortoise Management Plan?

A20:  No.  The State of Florida’s Gopher Tortoise Management Plan is a State-generated management and regulatory tool, and any residents of the State must comply with the regulations protecting tortoises. 

Q21:  Will the FWS now tell me what I can or cannot do on my land if I have gopher tortoises?

A21: No.  The 12-month finding places no restrictions on the use of your land.  However, all state regulations concerning the gopher tortoise continue to apply.  The 12-month finding does not change existing regulatory requirements in the western portion of the gopher tortoises’ range where it remains listed as a threatened species.

Q22:  I have gopher tortoises on my land.  How does this new finding affect me?

A22:  The finding does not affect landowners through new regulations.  However, if you are interested, there may be several opportunities for you to get technical and/or financial assistance to help manage your land to benefit gopher tortoises.  The Service and other agencies and organizations are interested in working with landowners to develop and implement management plans that include reestablishment of longleaf pine, use of prescribed fire, forest thinning, and establishment and management for ground cover.  These management objectives are not only good for tortoises, but they also benefit many other species. 

Q23:  Is forest management compatible with the needs of gopher tortoises?

A23:  Many silvicultural activities are compatible with the biological needs of the gopher tortoise.  The Service intends to work closely with the silviculture industry to develop best management practices to increase the conservation value of industrial timberlands for gopher tortoises.    

Q24:  If someone from the government finds out that I have gopher tortoise on my land, what happens?

A24:  Typically nothing would happen.  However, you may be contacted to see if you are interested in voluntarily participating in conservation efforts to benefit gopher tortoises.

Q25: Can I still use herbicides to fight invasive plants like cogongrass?

A25:  The Service encourages continued control of exotic vegetation.  In most instances, the spread of non-native vegetation will also negatively affect gopher tortoise habitat so effective control of exotic vegetation is considered a good management strategy for gopher tortoise conservation.

Q26:  Can the government come on my land to look for the gopher tortoise?

A26:  Only if you give us permission to do so.

Q27:  What can I do to help?

A27:  To achieve the open habitat conditions tortoises prefer, you can conduct prescribed burns on your land; 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

If your land is primarily in silviculture (specifically, planted pine), maintain gopher tortoise populations by prescribed burning and tree thinning.  A densely planted stand will minimize the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor, which reduces the grassy ground cover gopher tortoises prefer.

No matter where you live, you can help gopher tortoises.  You may help conserve tortoises by working with agencies that 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" 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. Last, but not least, education is key.  Educate your friends and neighbors about this species and the many other fascinating animals and plants found in your area.

Q28:  Who should I contact about more information on the gopher tortoise in my area or if I want to discuss conservation opportunities on my land?

A28:  Additional information can be obtained from the following sources:


Dan Everson, dan_everson @, 251-441-5837

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources


USFWS (Panhandle)
Harold Mitchell, Harold_mitchell @, 850-769-0552

USFWS (North Florida)
Mike Jennings, Michael_jennings @, 904-731-3093

USFWS (South Florida)
Brian Powell, brian_powell @,  772-562-3909

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


Athens ES office
Christopher Coppola, Christopher_coppola @, 912-832-8739

Georgia Department of Natural Resources


Lafayette ES office
Mike Sealy, Michael_sealy @, 337-291-3100

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries


Jackson ES office
Cary Norquist, cary_norquist @, 601-965-4900 ext. 28 

Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks

South Carolina

Charleston ES office
Paula Sisson, paula_sisson @, 843-727-4707

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources


Federal Register Notice

Literature Cited in 12-month Finding - PDF - 145KB

Opening Teleconference Remarks by Cindy Dohner, U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Regional Director, July 26, 2011 - PDF - 176KB

News release

Petition to list - PDF 995KB

Gopher tortoise Images

Gopher tortoise Video Clip - Scroll down to "Reptiles"

Gopher tortoise Species Information

Gopher Tortoise Fact Sheet

Information on the federally-listed Gopher tortoise in the western portion of its range


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Last updated: June 21, 2016