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.

Your Forest Management Plan: The Road Map to Success

Imagine going on an extended trip without looking at a map or plugging in to your GPS device. There will almost certainly be some detours, backtracking, and dead ends along the way. In all likelihood, you would eventually get to your destination, but wouldn’t the trip have been a lot more efficient if you had planned your route? A written Forest Management Plan is the equivalent of your “Road Map to Success” in arriving at your destination in the most efficient way. Having a written plan can be your road map to success in managing your forest.

In the case of your plan, the “destination” is your management objective(s). Your primary objective might be maximizing timber revenues. Or it could be optimizing wildlife habitat in general or for a specific wildlife species. Maybe soil and water conservation, aesthetics, or outdoor recreation is your primary focus. Many landowners want to incorporate some elements of all of these into their management plan, but the primary objective should be the one that’s driving the bus. Whatever your objectives, your natural resources professional will have to know what those are in order to prepare a plan that works for you. Otherwise, you will have a road map that takes you to the wrong destination.

A good Forest Management Plan will not only describe the property in detail and address your objectives, but will have many other components. Those components will include various maps (location, topographical, soils, timber type), stand specific recommendations, and a proposed timetable for implementation. The plan should not only tell you the what but should also tell give you the why, when, and how so that you can understand and implement the recommendations. Although the plan should be your “fingerprint” which is unique to you, any good natural resource professional should be able to pick it up, read it, and be able to efficiently implement the plan.

In addition to helping you reach your objectives, your management plan also provides other benefits. It consolidates your information in one place so that you don’t have to go looking for it. The plan also reinforces your agricultural status in most states, and it can make you eligible for entry into the Tree Farm system, which will allow your property to be “certified” under Tree Farm’s umbrella certification. The plan may also be desired or required for certain cost share programs.

You should keep in mind that a written management plan should be a flexible tool, not one that is rigid and unbending. It should be consulted on a regular basis and revised to reflect changes in the weather, markets, financial needs, and objectives. Sit down at least once a year with your natural resources professional to review the plan and make needed adjustments. If you are taking an extended trip, don’t you make changes in your route or schedule along the way due to factors such as road construction, traffic, weather, or desired side trips?

At Southern Forestry Consultants, we do much of our written management plan work in the hot summer months. The mostly indoor work fits in well with 95 degree heat and humidity! The summer also comes after our most hectic seasons: tree planting and prescribed burning. During the summer, we don’t take our foot off the gas, but at least we don’t have the pedal on the floor! It’s a good time for us to spend time with you reviewing your plans and objectives. If your current Forest Management Plan was written using stone and chisel, or if you don’t have a plan at all, contact your SFC forester or biologist to get started preparing your “Road Map to Success.”

Timber Basis, Who Needs One?

According to the official dictionary of Forestry and several of my university professors (no offense intended), a basis is the set of nonzero valued decision variables in a mathematical programming solution and the values of the reduced costs and dual prices associated Blah! Blah! Blah! and on and on and on! Hopefully, you’re still with me.

Now that I have given you a taste of what I went through in college, let me give you the simplified version of what a timber basis is and why you need one.

A timber basis is the appraised value of the timber at the time it changes ownership. It is the baseline value of your timber. When you purchase or inherit property (timber, according to the IRS code, is real property) you pay the state and federal income taxes on that property, and therefore are not subject to pay income taxes on it again, if you have established an acceptable timber basis (pay attention to the operative terms). A basis allows you to offset your long-term (12 months or more) capital gain by your baseline value.

Simplified Version – it may get you out of paying taxes, again.
Example: If your timber was worth $25,000 (timber basis) the day you took ownership and five years later you sold that timber or a portion of it for $35,000 your gain is $10,000, remember you are subject to taxes on only the gain if you have an acceptable timber basis. If you are in the 15% federal capital gains tax bracket then you would only pay $1,500 in federal income taxes, with a savings of $3,750. You will have used your timber basis and it will effectively drop to zero. If you had not established an acceptable timber basis your tax burden would have been $5,250 on the entire $35,000. Remember! You already paid the income taxes on this property the day you took ownership, why pay it again?

So what do you do if you have not established a timber basis? Have one established, there’s no time like the present. Delaying establishment of a timber basis can complicate the process, so don’t wait until the last minute, as appraisals, especially discounted ones take time. The timber will have to be appraised (cruised, researched and valued) and then discounted to the year in which you took ownership. Timber basis save you money in the long-run. If you have any questions contact your local SFC representative. He can answer your questions and help get you started.

Prescribed Burning – A Truly American Tradition

Fires are a part of our past that should be embraced. Before European contact with Native Americans, the indigenous people of the southeast were horticulturists (farmers). They grew maize (corn), squash, beans, sunflowers and pumpkins. By the beginning of the 16th century, Indians had cleared millions of acres for crops and set fires to hundreds of millions of acres annually to improve habitat for game, facilitate travel, reduce insects, pests and vermin, eliminate cover for potential enemies, enhance conditions for berry production, drive game, and for other purposes that improved their overall lives. Extensive areas of forestland in North America, particularly in the South were open and park-like due to Native American Indian caused fires. Early settlers talked of the ease of riding a horse or maneuvering a carriage under the forest canopy and recounted the practice of frequent Indian burning. Our native longleaf pine ecosystems consisting of warm season grasses, gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers and a vast array of other open canopy species all thrived under native people’s propensity to regularly burn the understory of our southern forests (MacCleery 1994).

So you see, as prescribed burning season approaches, it is part of the history of America to renew our forests annually in our time honored tradition of burning the understory of our forests, through controlled fire.

In today’s modern world, there are two types of prescribed burns: Site preparation burning for reforestation, and woods or understory burning.

Site preparation burning is generally performed after a final timber harvest and as part of the reforestation activities. The objective of this burn, which is normally performed in the fall, is to get the fire as hot as possible in order to reduce logging slash and debris. This type of fire exposes bare mineral soil, thereby making it easier to plant seedlings for a new forest.

Depending on the primary objective, woods or understory burning (more readily known as prescribed burning) is performed beginning in the winter months and extends into the early summer months. Prescribed fire can benefit a forest on many levels. It protects the crop trees from devastating wildfires by reducing fuel loads, and recycles the nutrients from these fuels back to the soil. Performed and timed correctly, these nutrient influxes can produce results similar to a light fertilizer application. Fire also sets back the natural succession of a stand by controlling unwanted hardwood competition that competes with the crop trees for sunlight, nutrients, and water. A proper fire regime maintains high quality understory herbaceous vegetation, making the stand attractive to many species of wildlife. Fire promotes more palatable legumes and forbs; many of which are high in essential nutrients, and in some cases promotes wiregrass and other native warm season grasses that are aesthetically pleasing and beneficial to many native wildlife species. Prescribed burning on a continuous and balanced rotation also increases beneficial insect populations that are utilized as a food source by wildlife, while decreasing detrimental parasite and disease-causing organism populations. A consistent fire regime implemented over a period of years, can reduce future reforestation costs. Light prescribed burns can improve stand access for hunting and other recreational uses, and create a more appealing, park-like appearance. Research indicates that managed tracts receive higher land and timber prices than those that are unmanaged. When you consider all the benefits it provides, prescribed fire is an incredibly cost-effective and powerful management tool.

The Native American Indians were on to something! With all these benefits, how could prescribed burning not be a major part of your overall natural resource management planning?