U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists gopher tortoise as candidate for Endangered Species Act protection
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07/26/11 Olivia Kabat
WMNF Drive-Time News Tuesday | Listen to this entire show:

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The gopher tortoise is being listed as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act in the eastern portion of its range, including Florida. But, the ecologically important reptile won’t be considered a full-fledged endangered species because of a funding shortfall.

In January of 2006 environmental groups filed a petition to list the gopher tortoise as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the eastern part of its range. In 2009 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a 12-month review and found that there are significant threats to make the gopher tortoise eligible to be listed as threatened or endangered. During a conference call today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said protection for the species is warranted but they cannot afford to protect the gopher tortoise at this time. Cindy Dohner, Southeast Regional Director for the Fish and Wildlife Service said they are still working to protect the weakening species.

“We know the tortoise habitat conditions are deteriorating and its habitat is more and more fragmented across the Southeast. It depends heavily upon prescribed fire as a management tool and while we’ve had plenty of fires in the Southeast this year, it’s not occurring in all the places it’s needed, nor is it happening in a controlled way. Most troubling is the fact that colonies are aging and not reproducing at sustainable rates for the long term. So we’ve got our work cut out for us to improve the outlook of the tortoise.”

Dohner said the hope is to increase conservation and protection efforts by state and federal agencies and private landowners. There are 251 candidate species listed for protection so many other species could come before the gopher tortoise. But Janet Mizzi, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says there is money available for funding candidate species.

“The section six grants go through the state and essentially they have to come up with matching dollars to what we provide. So a proposal will have to be submitted to the state for the conservation action and they will then prioritize all proposals they have and submit them to us for funding.”

Henry Mushinsky is a biology professor at USF in Tampa. He says the legal and financial process could be long, but the gopher tortoise population continues to decline.

“The IUCN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature the state has adopted the IUCN standards for listing species and one of the criteria is that you have to show a consistent downward trend over three generations. Well a generation for a tortoise is probably about 35 years. I worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service several years ago when the species was listed in Florida. We went through that exercise and we demonstrated that over the past 100 years there has been a significant decline in the number of gopher tortoises in the state of Florida. What the federal government has done is they have said that’s true throughout the entire range of the tortoise.”

Gopher tortoises live in oak hammocks, scrub habitat, and flatwoods. They are an ecologically important species because their deep burrows provide habitat for dozens of other species. They were once a thriving species in the Southeast region. Mushinsky says current threats in the eastern part of its range include massive habitat loss and degradation due to development by people.

“It’s a long lived animal so we think they can live, 50, 60, 70 years. So you can go to places and still see lots of gopher tortoises but the problem is you don’t see any juveniles, there are no babies, there’s no recoupment, what biologists would call recoupment into the population. So yes there are tortoises out there but the habitats have been so degraded that you only find adult animals and very few juveniles. This is suggesting that they really are in trouble and that we need to take better care of them.”

Even with other species listed as candidates for protection and money issues slowing the process down, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will continue to work toward saving gopher tortoises.

USFWS page on gopher tortoise

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