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Reclaiming a dump

In Alabama, Partners for Fish and Wildlife works with landowner to improve gopher tortoise habitat

Since Fiscal Year 2018, the West Georgia Field Office of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) Program has participated in a regional cooperative agreement in partnership with American Forestry Foundation (AFF) to provide cost share for work on private lands in southern Alabama and west-central Georgia. The goal of this partnership is to improve habitat and provide technical assistance for at-risk species on private lands; this work can help track conservation actions, inform listing determinations and provide regulatory predictability to landowners. The Service, AFF and local partners developed a set of criteria to guide the selection of projects for this initiative. Within southern Alabama and west-central Georgia, upland sandhills and gopher tortoise were chosen as the focal habitat and target species for project selection.

Service biologist Jim Bates, has been leading this effort in southeast Alabama and west-central Georgia. To date, Bates has worked on two habitat improvement projects (totaling 145 acres) in Alabama and four projects (totaling 860 acres) in Georgia, all with gopher tortoise on their property. Habitat improvement practices, including mid-story vegetation removal, site prep herbicide application, longleaf pine seedling planting and prescribed burning, along with tortoise surveys have been completed.

One unique project finvolved a property near Seale, Alabama, in Russell County, where the 400- acre tract included a sand ridge supporting a small population of gopher tortoise. Bates learned that this was unusual, because habitat fragmentation, development and detrimental land use practices had significantly reduced gopher tortoise numbers in that area.

A large tortoise standing among tall grass
A gopher tortoise on the site after the clean-up effort. Photo by the private landowner, used with permission.

Bates discovered that some of the active gopher tortoise burrows were in a five-acre dump site once used by local residents. The gopher tortoise burrows were not in the deeper part of the dump, where they would be conducive for burrows; instead, the burrows were in the shallow refuse layer, where glass, tin cans, tires, and metal were scattered throughout the site.

The property owner had gradually been removing small amounts of the refuse; however, to expedite the clean-up process, extra help was needed to remove the scattered debris among the active burrows to reduce the impact to the tortoise living in the area.

On a subsequent site visit, Bates and the landowner discussed a plan to remove additional debris, apply much needed herbicide and conduct a prescribed burn on an adjacent 40 acres AFF and the Service agreed to provide financial assistance for both project components as part of a 10-year agreement with the landowner. Work began last fall, with all improvement components successfully completed by early spring of this year.

The property is now free of debris to promote the re-establishment of native ground cover as a food source, while the prescribed fire on the adjacent property can now support habitat expansion for the existing gopher tortoise population. Working with the landowner, Bates will ensure the maintenance of the habitat improvement over the term of the agreement, including conducting subsequent burning, while also documenting burrows on the property. Bates is collaborating with biologists from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to conduct an official gopher tortoise survey in the near future. Utilizing this data, this project has now provided new information on a population of gopher tortoise that prior to this initiative, were unknown to exist.

Contact

Jim Bates, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program biologist
jim_bates@fws.gov, (706) 544-6428

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