Gopher Tortoise Conservation: From Hoover Chickens to Keystone Species

During his 1928 presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover used the campaign slogan of “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” as a way of promising prosperity to the American citizens. However, Hoover’s presidency was ultimately defined by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, which led to more empty rather than full pots and garages. The dire economic times led many in the south to mockingly refer to gopher tortoises as “Hoover Chickens,” since they were the most abundant source of food available for their pots. However, unlike typical game animals (e.g. white-tailed deer), gopher tortoises require very specific habitat conditions and reproduce slowly. Ultimately, wildlife biologists also discovered that gopher tortoises perform an important and disproportionately unique role in their ecosystem; prompting many to refer to the gopher tortoise as a “keystone species”. Although it is now illegal to hunt or possess gopher tortoises, other threats to the species have arisen and impacted its conservation status throughout its range.

Gopher tortoises are residents of deep and well-drained sandy soils throughout the Coastal Plain and have adapted over time to the fire-maintained longleaf pine ecosystem. Historically, lightning and Native Americans were the primary catalysts for these growing season fires in the longleaf pine ecosystem. Forest managers and wildlife biologists now use prescribed fire to mimic these natural fires in longleaf, loblolly, and slash pine habitats. Most wildlife populations change in response to the changes in vegetation due to fire, rather than from direct mortality to the fire. The gopher tortoise is no exception, as it will seek refuge in burrows (along with other species) from the heat and smoke produced by the fire. However, frequent fires and sparse canopy closure in this ecosystem promote an abundance of native grass and herbaceous species upon which the gopher tortoise depends. It has been estimated the gopher tortoise feeds on over 300 different herbaceous species found in fire-maintained habitats. In the absence of bison and wild horses, the gopher tortoise has been considered by some the most significant grazing animal within Florida’s pine-grassland ecosystem. Gopher tortoises may therefore provide a crucial form of seed dispersal for many native plants. As a result of their need for this fire-dependent grass and herbaceous species understory, the presence of gopher tortoises is often seen as an important indicator of optimal habitat conditions in these fire-maintained communities. While gopher tortoises most often occupy these pine and oak sandhill habitats, they can also be found in dry hammocks, coastal dunes and prairies, mixed pine-hardwoods, and even pine flatwoods and scrub.

The tortoise uses the deep sandy soils to dig burrows for thermoregulation, reproduction, and refuge from fire and predation. Gopher tortoises use multiple burrows which can extend over 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. During burrow construction and maintenance, tortoises bring sand from the end chamber and deposits it at the mouth of the burrow, known as the apron. When the end chamber is near the water table, this sand is often filled with nutrients that have leached into the water table. As the apron weathers, these nutrients are made available to plants across the site. The gopher tortoise also keeps this apron clear of vegetation to allow an open area for basking in the sun, early detection of predators, and an area to dig and deposit eggs. The subterranean burrows of this “keystone species” have also been shown to support over 350 other species, including numerous threatened and endangered species.

Gopher tortoise population declines associated with human population growth and land use changes have been noted across its historic range since the early 1980’s. Once estimated at 90 million acres across the southeast, the gopher tortoise’s optimal longleaf pine forest habitat now comprises approximately three (3) million acres. Additionally, increases in habitat fragmentation, conversion, destruction, and urbanization have had significant impacts on gopher tortoise populations. As a result, gopher tortoises were listed as a federally threatened species in Mississippi, Louisiana, and where they occur in Alabama counties west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in 1987. The species was recently federally listed as a candidate species in the eastern portion of its range (including South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and the remaining eastern counties in Alabama). As a “candidate species,” the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has indicated they have sufficient information on the biological status and threats to the gopher tortoise to propose listing (as threatened or endangered) but is currently precluded from listing due to higher priorities. Forestry and forest management generally receive agricultural exemptions from current impacts to gopher tortoises. However, residential and commercial development activities require avoidance and relocation measures of differing intensities based on state regulations. For example, the state of Georgia currently has no permitting process but does offer conservation recommendations and guidance for avoiding impacts to gopher tortoises. The state of Florida has a detailed regulatory and permitting process for any non-exempt activities that impact gopher tortoise burrows. This process generally involves the survey, excavations and relocation of gopher tortoises by registered Authorized Agents to certified recipient sites throughout the state. In the federally threatened, western-portion of the gopher tortoise range, development activities are further encumbered by the Endangered Species Act and require coordination and approval (generally through a Biological Opinion) with the USFWS. If the gopher tortoise is ultimately federally listed by the USFWS in the eastern portion of its range,

The USFWS estimates that 80% of gopher tortoise habitat is held by private or corporate landowners. Therefore, landowners and land managers can play a major role in the success of this species and ultimately its need for federal (USFWS threatened or endangered species) listing in the eastern portion of its range.   In June of 2013, the USFWS released a Range-Wide Conservation Strategy for the Gopher Tortoise1. By implementing these conservation strategies and programs, landowners and state agencies can address the immediate and identifiable threats to the gopher tortoise. Proactively addressing the needs of the gopher tortoise prior to regulatory requirements being enacted can minimize the recovery costs associated with listing, provide more flexible management options, and reduce restrictive land use policies if the species is listed. Ultimately and ideally, by reducing threats and stabilizing populations through proactive conservation measures the need to federally list the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range could be eliminated. We have come a long way in our understanding and appreciation of the importance of the gopher tortoise in the southern forest ecosystems since the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover’s presidential administration. As the conservation status of this species continues to evolve, private landowners and land managers will play a major role in defining its legacy.