Q: What action is the Service taking?
A: The Service is announcing a Notice of Findings for the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). The Service has determined the eastern and western portions of the gopher tortoise’s range meet the criteria of Distinct Population Segments (DPS). The Service finds that the eastern DPS is not warranted for listing and is therefore withdrawing the eastern DPS as a candidate for listing. Additionally, the Service confirms that the western DPS continues to meet the definition of a threatened species.
Q: What is a Notice of Findings?
A: The Service provides legal notice of our actions to the public through the publication of documents in the Federal Register, including a Notice of Finding. Our findings for the gopher tortoise do not propose listing of the species rangewide or in the eastern DPS nor do those findings propose a status change for the western DPS, therefore, a proposed rule is not needed.
Q: How did the Service arrive at these findings?
A: On July 7, 1987, the gopher tortoise was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the western portion of its range, from the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers in Alabama west to southeastern Louisiana on the lower Gulf Coastal Plain. On January 18, 2006, the Service was petitioned to list the gopher tortoise as a threatened species in the eastern portion of its range and to designate critical habitat. On September 9, 2009, the Service published a 90-day finding that listing may be warranted and that we would initiate a status review. As part of the 12-month finding published on July 27, 2011, the Service determined that the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of the range warranted listing, but listing was precluded due to higher priority actions. The gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range has remained a candidate species since that time and has been reviewed annually in Candidate Notice of Reviews (CNORs) from 2011 to 2022.
A Species Status Assessment (SSA) for the gopher tortoise was initiated in 2019. Over the course of two years, in collaboration with other scientists and utilizing the best available information on the species, the Service analyzed the current and future conditions of the gopher tortoise. The SSA report was completed in August 2021, after which time the Service held Recommendation Team Meetings (RTMs) for the species.
At the conclusion of the RTMs, the Service found that listing the gopher tortoise as an endangered or a threatened species throughout its entire six-state range was not warranted. The Service also found that gopher tortoise populations in the eastern portion of its range (east of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers; current candidate for listing) and gopher tortoise populations in the western portion of its range (west of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers; current listed population) both met the criteria of separate DPSs. The Service found that the eastern DPS was not warranted for listing at this time, necessitating removal of the eastern DPS from the candidate list. Further, the Service confirmed that the western DPS continued to meet the definition of a threatened species. Included in this notice is the five-year review of the western DPS of the gopher tortoise that recommends no change in status for that DPS.
You can take a first-hand look at the populations' resiliency by looking at this interactive map.
Q: What is a Species Status Assessment (SSA)?
A: The SSA framework is an analytical approach developed by the Service to deliver foundational science for informing all ESA decisions. An SSA is a focused, repeatable, and rigorous scientific assessment. The result of this framework is better assessments, improved and more transparent and defensible decision-making, and clearer and more concise documents. The Service is already seeing benefits from this approach.
Ideally, an SSA is conducted at or prior to the candidate assessment or 12-month finding stage but can be initiated at any time. The SSA is designed to follow the species so information on the biological status is available for conservation use and can be updated with new information. Thus, the SSA provides a single source for species’ biological information needed for all ESA decisions (e.g., listing, consultations, grant allocations, permitting, habitat conservation plans, and recovery planning). The biological analysis and the resulting stand-alone science-focused assessment allow for engagements by states and other partners in the science used to base ESA decisions. Early identification of influences on the species’ condition affords timely opportunities to work with partners to implement conservation efforts in advance of potential ESA decisions.
An SSA begins with a compilation of the best available information on the species’ life history, habitat, and taxonomy. Next, an SSA describes the factors influencing the species, the current condition of the species’ habitat, and demographics including past and ongoing changes in abundance and distribution within the species’ range. Last, an SSA forecasts the species’ response to plausible future scenarios of environmental conditions and conservation efforts.
Overall, an SSA uses the conservation biology principles of resiliency, redundancy, and representation (collectively known as the “3 Rs”) to evaluate the current and future condition of the species. As a result, the SSA characterizes a species’ ability to sustain populations in the wild over time based on the best scientific understanding of current and future abundance and distribution within the species’ ecological settings.
An SSA is a biological risk assessment to aid decision makers who must use the best available scientific information to make policy decisions under the ESA. The SSA provides decision makers with a scientifically rigorous characterization of a species’ status and the likelihood that the species will sustain populations. It also includes key uncertainties in that characterization. The SSA does not result in a decision directly, but it provides the best available scientific information to guide ESA decisions.
Q: What is a distinct population segment (DPS)?
A: Under the ESA, a DPS is a vertebrate population or group of populations that is discrete from other populations of the species and significant in relation to the entire species. By listing a DPS, the Service applies the ESA’s protections only to portions that are both separate from the remainder of the range and biologically or ecologically significant to the species. Listing distinct population segments allows the Service to protect and conserve species and the ecosystems upon which they depend before a largescale decline occurs that would necessitate the ESA’s protections throughout a species’ entire range.
Q: What is the gopher tortoise and where does it occur?
A: The gopher tortoise is a large, fossorial species (a species adapted to digging and living primarily underground) with a domed, brown to grayish-black carapace (top shell) approximately 10-15 inches in length. Gopher tortoises weigh approximately 9-13 pounds. They inhabit the southeast region from southern South Carolina west through Georgia, the Florida panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi to eastern Louisiana, and south through most of peninsular Florida. The gopher tortoise is a keystone species that creates burrows that are central to feeding, breeding and sheltering. Their burrows are used by other species, such as the federally threatened eastern indigo snake, the gopher mouse, the six-lined roadrunner, the gopher frog, the cave cricket, and casual visitants like the tiger beetle, skunk, opossum, and rattlesnakes. Like many reptiles, sex determination and daily and seasonal activity are temperature dependent. The gopher tortoise is a long-lived reptile, with a lifespan of 50 to 80 years and is late to reach reproductive maturity.
Q: What is the gopher tortoise’s habitat?
A: The gopher tortoise is generally associated with southern pine tree species including longleaf pine, loblolly pine, and slash pine. Natural community associations include dry uplands such as sandhills and scrub, longleaf pine savannas, upland hammocks, pine flatwoods, dry prairie, coastal grasslands and dunes, mixed hardwood-pine communities, and a variety of disturbed plant communities. Typical gopher tortoise habitat consists of an open canopy with a diverse array of groundcover vegetation occurring on well-drained, sandy soils with widely spaced trees and shrubs.
Q: What are the gopher tortoise’s main threats?
A: The primary threats to the gopher tortoise are fragmentation, destruction, and modification of its habitat, including urbanization. Other threats include the following: mortality due to vehicle strikes; effects ofincluding increased drought and extreme high temperatures, sea level rise, and migration of human populations from inundated coastal areas; and nonnative , disease, and predation (mainly on nests and hatchlings). Increased drought and high temperatures also reduce the number of days that prescribed fire can be used for habitat management, which leads to further degradation and loss of habitat.
Q: What conservation measures are being undertaken across the range of the species?
A: The gopher tortoise is protected in all states where it occurs (state-listed as threatened in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida; state-listed as endangered in South Carolina; and protected as a non-game species in Alabama). Populations in the western DPS are federally listed as threatened and receive protections under the ESA.
Other federal agencies have emphasized conservation actions to benefit the gopher tortoise, including the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) programs of technical and financial assistance to private landowners to implement management actions for gopher tortoise and its habitat through the Working Lands for Wildlife program and the Longleaf Pine Initiative. Several national forests (NFs) (Ocala, Desoto, Conecuh, and Apalachicola NFs) occur within the range of the species and provide important habitat conservation. In particular, the Desoto NF in Mississippi has implemented longleaf pine restoration and juvenile head-starting efforts.
The Department of Defense (DoD) is an important partner in gopher tortoise conservation as well. The Gopher Tortoise Conservation and Crediting Strategy is a conservation initiative designed to balance military mission activities and gopher tortoise conservation on DoD installations in the Southeast to provide a net conservation benefit to the species. The gopher tortoise occurs on 31 DoD sites across the species’ range. Most include the gopher tortoise in Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans and have robust habitat management programs that include the application of prescribed fire.
The Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program has facilitated habitat management actions to benefit gopher tortoise on approximately 65,000 acres of privately owned lands across the range of the species from 2010 to 2019. In addition, potential gopher tortoise habitat occurs on several National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) (Merritt Island, Lake Wales Ridge, Lower Suwannee, St. Marks NWRs) throughout the range of the species and those refuges implement habitat restoration activities to benefit gopher tortoise.
Efforts with private landowners, industry groups and non-governmental organizations have also improved gopher tortoise habitat across the range of the species. Approximately 80% of potential gopher tortoise habitat is in private lands that are managed for forest production, providing opportunities for forestry and silviculture-related conservation actions. Several Service-approved agreements are also in place to provide for the conservation of the gopher tortoise, including Memorandum of Agreements, the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Crediting Strategy, several Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances and a range-wide Candidate Conservation Agreement. Since 2011, approximately 120,000 acres of potential gopher tortoise habitat on private lands has been protected in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and approximately 26,740 acres have been protected on federal lands. In addition, the Service’s Rangewide Conservation Strategy (2013), industry best management practices, and the Gopher Tortoise Initiative guide public and private partnerships and actions to benefit the species. Ongoing translocations of gopher tortoises and head-starting of juvenile tortoises ahead of releases are important components of the overall gopher tortoise conservation efforts.
Q: What does translocating gopher tortoises entail?
A: The translocation of gopher tortoises involves the intentional capture and transfer of gopher tortoises or groups of gopher tortoises from one location that is no longer suitable (area impacted by construction or development) to a recipient site that contains sufficient habitat. The primary goal for recipient sites is to help prevent the loss of gopher tortoises. Florida’s gopher tortoise management conservation program includes the largest scale use of translocation practices in the species’ range. As of May 2022, Florida had permitted 50 long-term gopher tortoise recipient sites that are protected by aand cover more than 77,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat.
Q: How did you determine the western DPS should keep its threatened status?
A: Using the best available science, we determined the primary threats of ongoing and future impact of habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, and habitat management in combination with other threats of disease, predation, and nonnative invasive species act to reduce the viability of the western DPS. Population characteristics in the western DPS mean these threats can have an outsized impact on populations. Populations in the western DPS are generally smaller with lower abundance and decreased reproduction compared to the remainder of the range. In addition, habitat is more fragmented in this area and less habitat management occurs in the western DPS compared to the eastern DPS.
When evaluating the status of the western DPS, it was noted that most of the local populations within this DPS currently have low resiliency (ability to bounce back from environmental or population changes). However, the gopher tortoise currently occurs on 103,000 acres in the western DPS. Because gopher tortoises are long-lived, they will remain on the landscape for several decades despite current and ongoing threats. Therefore, the western DPS does not warrant listing as endangered but should remain listed as threatened. Future projections show increasingly disconnected populations and overall decline in number of individuals and populations. Populations in the western DPS show low or no recruitment and population growth, leading to loss of populations, particularly small populations in the future.
Q: Why is the eastern DPS not warranted for listing as a threatened or endangered species?
A: The eastern DPS comprises the majority of the current gopher tortoise range and includes the majority of local gopher tortoise populations across the range. Federal, state, non-government organizations, and private partners have provided information about gopher tortoise numbers and habitat condition in the eastern DPS to inform our analysis of the species’ condition. Although threats including habitat loss and fragmentation due to urbanization, climate warming, sea-level rise and habitat management affect the populations, many of these populations are in good condition. In addition, habitat restoration efforts, implementation of best management practices, and conservation measures to benefit the gopher tortoise have contributed to the current condition of the species. Future projections of the species’ condition show that many healthy populations will remain across the range. Overall projections suggest that extinction risk for the gopher tortoise in the eastern DPS is low in the future.
Q: What are the next steps for the eastern DPS?
A: The eastern DPS will be removed from candidate list and will not be included in future CNORs. We expect conservation and management plans that include the gopher tortoise will continue to benefit the species. The gopher tortoise is protected by state regulations range-wide. If state protections for the species change in the future, especially in the core areas of the species, a reevaluation of the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms may be required.
Q: How will these findings affect consultations for state or federal agencies?
A: State: Gopher tortoises in the eastern DPS are state-listed as endangered or threatened in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, and projects to benefit the species in those states may pursue funding under state-administered Service programs including State Wildlife Grants. Projects that benefit gopher tortoise habitat or co-occurring species may also provide benefit to the eastern DPS populations. However, following withdrawal of the candidate status for the eastern DPS, gopher tortoise projects will no longer be eligible for section 6 funding as an at-risk species.
Q: The western DPS listing status and section 6 grant eligibility remains unchanged.
A: Federal: Conservation actions to benefit the gopher tortoise and its habitat are expected to continue in the eastern portion of the range to some extent based on state guidelines and protections. In addition, partners with existing or future Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCAs) or Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAAs) in the range of the species may include the gopher tortoise and provide a net conservation benefit to the species. Other listed species that co-occur in similar habitat within the gopher tortoise range include the Eastern indigo snake, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and other longleaf pine habitat species. Although we expect partners will still consider the gopher tortoise as part of established management plans and conservation activities, following withdrawal of the candidate status for the eastern DPS, conferencing with the Service will not be required for activities that may affect the species in the eastern DPS.
The western DPS listing status remains unchanged therefore federal agencies will need to continue to engage in section 7 consultations.
Q: How can I comment on these findings?
A: There is no formal comment period when the Service issues a Notice of Findings. However, recognizing the complexity of these findings, the Service is planning a virtual public informational meeting on December 13, 2022 from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. EST to present the findings and address questions on gopher tortoise conservation and management. Registration information can be found at the following website: https://www.fws.gov/project/gopher-tortoise