Three years ago, an unprecedented coalition of government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector joined forces to keep the gopher tortoise, our state reptile, off the endangered species list. Federal, state and private partners, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund and the Georgia Conservancy kicked off a $150-million initiative to preserve about 100,000 acres of the critter’s habitat in South Georgia and permanently protect 65 viable populations. Today, about $90 million has been pledged or spent by public and private organizations, 39,000 acres have been purchased and 46 viable populations have been protected.
The push to keep the gopher tortoise off the endangered species list is practical as well as altruistic. Sites slated for development can become caught up in regulatory hurdles if endangered species are located there, costing the developers time and money. Business-friendly entities in the state felt a pre-emptive strategy was in their best interests.
In addition, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species, meaning approximately 300 birds, insects, amphibians and other reptiles seek protection in tortoise burrows, which can be 40 feet long. In effect, preserving the tortoise helps preserve an ecosystem.
This remarkable program could potentially help other states facing similar situations and serve as a model for protecting species in other states.
Photos of adult and baby gopher tortoises courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.