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Col. Matthew Higer, 96th Test Wing vice commander, bends down to release a gopher tortoise into its new home deep within the Eglin Air Force Base. Photo by Samuel King Jr., U.S. Air Force.

Boosting the gopher tortoise

Federal, state and private partners raise $150 million to help the much-loved keystone species flourish in the South

Atlanta, Georgia – Typically, animals like the Florida panther lose their Southern habitat, dwindle perilously close to extinction and end up on the endangered species list. Federal, state and non-profit groups hustle to raise money and conserve land to bolster the populations with the chance, one day, of delisting it.

The gopher tortoise, though, just might buck the trend.

An at-risk species in Georgia, Florida and parts of Alabama and South Carolina, the tank-like tortoise is the recipient of an unprecedented, high-dollar collaboration between government agencies, NGOs and the private sector to keep gopherus polyphemus from ever gracing the threatened or endangered species list.

The state of Georgia is spearheading a $150 million effort to keep the gopher tortoise from being listed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which ultimately will decide the reptile’s statutory fate, is a keen and active player in keeping the tortoise alive and well. Federal, state and private partners are raising $50 million each – a huge sum dedicated to the protection of one species. Rarely before has the private sector committed as much money to keep a so-called candidate species off the federal list of protected fish and wildlife.

Yet business, industry and the private foundations they fund recognize that keeping the tortoise from being listed will save millions of dollars, years of potential construction delays and untold regulatory headaches by proactively protecting the species and its habitat.

“We all have the same objective: can we save this critter without more regulation?” said Doug Miell, the energy and natural resources consultant for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. “We’re all smart enough to see that more regulations could be the future if we don’t work this out.”

The goals are ambitious: conserve, mostly via purchase, 100,000 South Georgia acres; permanently protect 65 “viable” gopher tortoise populations; and prove that the turtle is flourishing in the wild.

The successes, so far, are manifold: roughly $90 million has been spent or pledged by the public and private sectors; 39,000 acres have been bought up; and 46 “viable” populations have been protected.

“It truly is a remarkable program. We have accomplished so much in such a short time,” said Cindy Dohner, regional director for Fish and Wildlife in the Southeast. “The gopher tortoise initiative also underscores the collaborative nature of conservation without conflict: we work closely with business, industry, the military – you name it – anybody who can help us save species while keeping regulatory burdens at bay.”

Save the tortoise, save the ecosystem

At first blush, the gopher tortoise seems an unlikely critter to garner so much attention. Not as pretty as the red-cockaded woodpecker or as magisterial as the Florida panther, the tortoise is an ecologically critical reptile in the sandy coastal plains of the Deep South. She is already listed as threatened in Mississippi, Louisiana and western Alabama. She’s at-risk in Georgia and Florida and parts of Alabama and South Carolina.

A black and white bird perched on a tree covered in sap.
Red-cockaded woodpecker feeding its young in the cavity of a longleaf pine in Georgia. Photo by John Maxwell, USFWS.

The Sunshine State is home to most gopher tortoises with maybe 800,000 scattered across the state’s northern and central flanks. Georgia, where the state reptile is none other than the gopher tortoise, ranks second.

Development, though, poses a threat. Roads, utility lines, de-forested farms, solar arrays, phosphate mines, pesticides, cars, disease, coyotes and wild boars also harm the tortoise and its habitat.

Beyond their Yoda-like visage, though, the tortoise is much-loved – and much-needed. As a keystone species, roughly 300 other birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects, including the threatened eastern indigo snake, use tortoise burrows for protection. Burrows, up to 40 feet long, also shelter the animals during forest fires, prescribed or otherwise.

A deep black snake crawling on a pine tree.
Eastern indigo snake on a pine tree. Photo by Richard Dowling, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“The gopher tortoise, in and of itself, is one of the most amazing animals on the planet,” said Christopher Jenkins, CEO of the Georgia-based Orianne Society, which works to save reptiles, amphibians and the ecosystems in which they live. “By saving the tortoise you can make an argument that you’re saving the entire longleaf pine ecosystem and hundreds of other animals that depend on it.”

Serious efforts to save the tortoise, and keep it off the endangered species list, began in 2008 with the signing of a voluntary “candidate conservation agreement” by Fish and Wildlife, the Pentagon, the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies and nonprofits.

It was designated a candidate for listing three years later. The Gopher Tortoise Council – yes, a species-specific working group of biologists and other turtle lovers – began compiling criteria to keep the reptile from being listed. The state and federal scientists later registered 36 permanently protected gopher tortoise populations. Each population contains 250 adult tortoises.

Public and private entities joined the tortoise parade. The Department of Defense, Fish and Wildlife and state agencies developed a crediting plan to allow military bases in the South to expand into tortoise territory while boosting the reptiles’ overall numbers. The incidental “take” of one tortoise, for example, must be replaced with two tortoises somewhere else.

An open pine ecosystem with low growing grasses in the understory.
A well-managed stand of longleaf pine. Photo by Randy Browning, USFWS.

The Pentagon gets regulatory certainty too, even if the species is later listed as endangered. The credit program, along with contributions from various federal, state and nonprofit groups, afforded Georgia a new, tortoise-heavy wildlife management area in South Georgia earlier this year.

“The Gopher Tortoise Initiative has played an essential role in ensuring the tortoise avoids listing under the Endangered Species Act,” said Mark Williams, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “There has been a tremendous partnership between the state, federal agencies, non-profit organizations and industry alike to protect important habitat and augment tortoise populations, all while providing Georgians with public recreational land.”

In December 2014, the state and the feds joined with The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund and the Georgia Conservancy to unveil the $150 million initiative. That’s how much the biologists and Steve Friedman, real estate czar for Georgia’s DNR, figured it would cost to scoop up 100,000 acres of gopher-rich territory.

Nobody wanted another red-cockaded woodpecker on their hands. Its pine tree habitat devastated by timber harvests and development, the woodpecker was listed as endangered in 1970. Nearly 50 years, and millions of dollars later, the bird remains on the list, although recent recovery numbers show promise.

“That always stuck with me,” Friedman said. “And then the tortoise became a candidate species and we decided we didn’t want the same thing to happen with the woodpecker. We realized we needed to do something big that would make a difference.”

The money started rolling in. Huge tracts of land were acquired. Tortoises rebounded.

One of the largest properties, the 20,000-acre Sansavilla tract along the Altamaha River, cost $36 million. In all, $74 million has been spent so far with pledges for another $15 million. Private nonprofits and foundations have kicked in $11 million with a similar amount already pledged for future land deals. The Knobloch Family Foundation, a private philanthropy, early on committed $12.5 million.

“What’s fun and refreshing is that so many different conservation groups, who often work independently, have come together to form a strong alliance in support of the gopher tortoise initiative,” said Eleanor Ratchford, a Knobloch board member. “This is such a big project with many different aspects: burning; land acquisition; longleaf pine; land management. The cooperation is all very heartening.”

In 2015, the Georgia Chamber joined the tortoise initiative. As the state’s largest business group, its members – utilities, builders, agribusinesses, timber companies, solar developers, in particular – have a vested interest in keeping the tortoise off the endangered species list. Just mention “Volvo” and you’ll know why.

Two years ago the Swedish automaker scouted Georgia and South Carolina for a $500 million manufacturing plant that promised 4,000 jobs within a decade. Georgia offered Volvo a 142-acre site 20 miles west of Savannah. The site, though, contained tortoises and may have led to a recommendation that they be moved to a different location.

South Carolina – which reportedly emphasized to Volvo the regulatory hurdles Georgia would need to surmount – prevailed with more land and a much larger incentive package. While nobody directly fingered the tortoise as Georgia’s losing card, few business leaders relished the defeat.

“We are a heavily regulated business and any surprises can really throw things off track,” said Jim Ozier, a wildlife biologist with Georgia Power. “When we have work with transmission lines, on private lands or right-of-way easements, we go in and mark where the burrows are so that they can be avoided by heavy equipment. We are trying to improve the gopher tortoise situation in Georgia.”

The utility restores tortoise habitat at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro and Plant Hatch in Baxley. It also raised and released 40 tortoises into the wild two years ago. It’s considering a credit banking system like the military’s. It hasn’t, though, committed money to the Georgia Chamber’s gopher tortoise fund.

“We are interested and we want to be a partner, but probably not so much from a pay-and-play perspective,” Ozier said.

The private sector has spent or pledged about half of its $50 million commitment – all from foundations or NGOs.

“We need the business community in order for this to be successful,” said DNR’s Friedman who spends 90 percent of his time on the initiative. “You can’t reap the benefits without standing up and being counted.”

Not listing the gopher tortoise is within reach. As more money is raised, more tortoise populations are tallied, and more lands are conserved in the right places, the likelihood of a listing diminishes. A gopher tortoise success would resonate far beyond the sandy plains of South Georgia.

“I see it as a model for other states that are looking at potential federal listings,” said the Orianne Society’s Jenkins. “This is the most promising program to come along – potentially ever – in terms of precluding a federal listing.”

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