For two vanishing species, interdependence is crucial
by Sydney Cromwell
Once upon a time, much of Alabama was covered in miles of grasslands dotted with longleaf pines — “a forest you could have a horse race in,” according to Ad Platt, the vice president of operations at the Longleaf Alliance. But the real star of these forests never moves at a gallop.
Gopher tortoises are considered a “keystone” species for longleaf pine ecosystems, as their lifestyles also make it possible for hundreds of other species to live there. As forested prairies have disappeared beneath decades of agriculture and development, gopher tortoises have disappeared as well.
Read more from Southern Science on grassland biodiversity and restoration efforts in Alabama.
There were once 90 million acres of longleaf pines in the Southeast, but less than 5 million acres are estimated to remain today. Gopher tortoise populations are hard to pin down, but it’s estimated the species has declined by 80% and about 150,000 remain.
“These populations will slowly blink out if we don’t do something to bolster those numbers,” said Jeff Goessling, who studies gopher tortoises.
Conservation efforts for both species are growing, but the question is: Will it be enough for a “happily ever after”?
THE GRASSLANDS ‘APARTMENT BUILDERS’
Gopher tortoises get their name from their most distinctive habit: using their shovel-like front legs, they dig burrows around 6 feet deep and 15 to 20 feet long.
Within these burrows, the tortoises and their eggs are protected from extremes of weather and temperature.
The burrows are also the reason gopher tortoises are considered the keystones of longleaf pine ecosystems. They are shelters for as many as 360 species of snakes, lizards, frogs, insects and even larger animals like burrowing owls, skunks and juvenile alligators.
Erin Lentz, a biologist at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Alabama Ecological Field Office, described gopher tortoises as the “apartment builders” of the ecosystem.
“Having gopher tortoises isn’t just one species, there’s a whole slew of commensals and associated species that come along with their success,” said Matthew Hodges, who works in the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program at the Alabama Ecological Field Office.
Goessling described gopher tortoises as a “fascinating group of animals.” He began researching them while working on his Ph.D. at Auburn University, and his career has been “inseparable” from them ever since. He is now an assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College in Florida.
While fascinating, the tortoises are also hard to study, in part because they can live for decades — even up to 100 years — and the effects of conservation work can take a long time to appear.
“The biggest challenge is that they live forever, so they’re going to outlive the humans studying them,” said Craig Guyer, an Auburn University emeritus biology professor.
However, based on what researchers currently know, Guyer said conservation efforts are “probably not” enough to rebuild the species. Populations seem to be on the decline throughout the tortoises’ range, which spans 26 Alabama counties and regions of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.
“It’s hard to say where there’s greater need because the challenges are different in different states,” Goessling said.
In Florida, for instance, the rapid pace of land clearing and development is “an existential threat to tortoises and all the species that exist with them, and there is effectively nothing being done to curb that threat,” Goessling said.
“Human population growth there is so rapid, and it’s all located on the best remaining tortoise habitat,” Guyer agreed.
Coastal Alabama has similar issues, but the situation is “more nuanced and more complicated” once you head further inland to places like Covington and Escambia counties, Goessling said. In southern Alabama, habitats have been lost due to development, suppression of low-intensity natural fires and historical poaching.
The “demographic bottleneck” this created, Goessling said, means that many local tortoise populations are simply too small or too far apart to repopulate.
PROTECTED OR NOT
Each state has its own regulations meant to protect the species. The gopher tortoise is considered to be “endangered” by South Carolina; “threatened” by Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi; and protected as a non-game species by Alabama.
The gopher tortoise also has federal protection — but not everywhere.
Gopher tortoises are divided into an eastern and a western range. Within the western range, which includes the portions of Mobile, Washington and Choctaw counties west of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers, along with Mississippi and Louisiana, gopher tortoises are considered a “threatened” species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. About 8% of the population lives in this area, according to the FWS.
“It’s really important to establish what little habitat they have over there,” Lentz said.
In the eastern range, which includes the rest of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, they aren’t under federal protection.
When the FWS decided not to extend Endangered Species Act status to the eastern range of the species in October 2022, environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity felt this was a mistake.
The FWS stated that the populations of gopher tortoises in the eastern range were stable and doing well enough under state protections that they didn’t need additional protection from the federal government.
Guyer said he’s “very conflicted” about the decision, though he noted that there are other species he believes are “more worthy” of inclusion under the Endangered Species Act.
Goessling said it’s important for the decision to be consistent with the data that is known about gopher tortoises, such as the FWS’s species status assessment that estimates around 150,000 remaining tortoises.
The Center for Biological Diversity announced in March that it intends to sue the FWS over its decision not to protect the entire range of gopher tortoises.
“It’s a soft crash landing. We’re softening the crash, but we’re not preventing the crash landing.”Jeff Guyer, Eckerd College
Working with this mix of state and federal protection means conservation efforts are rarely uniform.
In Alabama, it is illegal to hunt, own or trade gopher tortoises, and they are considered a priority species for conservation.
“The state has done, in my opinion, an admirable job of attempting to preserve what we have in place,” Guyer said.
Their burrows, however, are unprotected, Goessling said. The state doesn’t have regulations related to developing on a burrow site, except the federal protections in the western range.
Lentz said most gopher tortoises in Alabama are located on private land, so the state is doing “great work” with landowners to move tortoises that are in the way of development.
When relocation is necessary, the tortoises are moved to sites like the tortoise preserve operated by the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Services, which offers mitigation credits back to landowners. The MAWSS preserve is currently at capacity.
When tortoises build burrows under power lines, Alabama Power Company says that it sends biologists out to inspect the area and flag any burrows, so they won’t be disturbed when line work begins.
While Florida isn’t in the federally protected western range, the state has its own regulations requiring tortoises to be moved before any development begins. More than 10,000 tortoises were legally relocated for these construction and land-clearing projects in Florida in 2020, and more than 17,000 in 2021, according to the state’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
However, what isn’t clear is the long-term survival and reproduction rate when the tortoises are moved to new homes. Goessling and Guyer believe these relocations slow population loss, but they don’t stop it.
“It’s a soft crash landing. We’re softening the crash, but we’re not preventing the crash landing,” Goessling said.
Relocating tortoises outside their home ranges means exposing them to new climates and habitats that they may not be able to adapt to, Goessling said. It can also muddy their genetic differences, which are important for the overall health of the species, Guyer said.
There are about six to eight genetically distinct populations of gopher tortoises across the Southeast, he said.
“That is where we’re making a mistake I think we’re likely to regret,” Guyer said.
Goessling said protection of gopher tortoises is better than it once was, when construction projects were often built on top of burrows whether or not the tortoise was still inside. But he said more stringent rules about development are still needed.
“I really believe using this dichotomy of ‘It could be worse,’ is not effective conservation,” he said.
‘STOP THE BLOOD LOSS’
Several groups are trying to give gopher tortoises the best possible chance to rebuild their populations.
At the Alabama field office, Lentz said the U.S. FWS is working to support the creation of “focal areas,” to gather tortoises spread throughout a habitat into a smaller area with ideal conditions, in the hopes of encouraging reproduction.
Guyer said pockets of the gopher tortoise population that are living on protected and actively managed land, such as Conecuh National Forest, are “stable and increasing.” Rather than trying to preserve tortoises everywhere, he believes landowners should try to regroup tortoises in the best available sites and focus on conservation there.
Tortoises “know a good spot when they bump into it,” Guyer said.
Goessling is part of a team working on a “head-start” program, where gopher tortoises are hatched and raised in captivity, then released at 1 or 2 years old. The program is a partnership between the U.S. FWS, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), the Birmingham Zoo and Eckerd College.
Goessling said head-starting keeps the baby tortoises safe from predators until they’ve partially grown, giving the survival rate “a little bit of a lift up.” A similar head-start program was previously completed at Desoto National Forest in Mississippi.
The Geneva State Forest Wildlife Management Area in Covington County was chosen as the site for the Alabama head-start project. It includes about 9,000 state-owned acres of land where habitat restoration is ongoing, and approximately 200 tortoises already live there, Goessling said.
The research team spent the first year regrouping those tortoises into a smaller area, then collecting all of the nests they could find, Goessling said. The hatchlings were born and raised at Eckerd College and the Birmingham Zoo.
In September 2022, they released 98 young tortoises in the WMA, he said. A third of the tortoises were fitted with radio transmitters to monitor their survival until field work ended in the winter.
Goessling said he was concerned about the tortoises over the winter, particularly during a harsh cold snap in late December. However, when his research team did a burrow survey in March, Goessling said as far as they could tell, all of the head-start tortoises had survived and the burrows they had monitored never dipped below 50 degrees.
The research team will continue their tracking this year, and next year there will be more trapping efforts to get a closer look at how the tortoises are doing, Goessling said. The goal is to have about 250 tortoises in a 100-acre area, he said, which is considered to be a viable population density.
Goessling considers these efforts helpful, but insufficient without other protections. Raising tortoises in a lab and releasing them is labor- and time-intensive work, and researchers won’t know for years — possibly decades — whether head-starting will make a real difference in population levels.
“More turtles will be lost because we aren’t protecting burrows than we could ever raise in a lab.”Jeff Goessling, Eckerd College
Head-start programs “should be the absolute last resort,” he said. “We really shouldn’t be talking about raising more turtles until we stop the blood loss.”
Goessling said creating regulations to protect burrows is one of the most important first steps. When people find gopher tortoises on their properties, particularly when planning to develop, he said, they should have to work with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to figure out solutions.
“More turtles will be lost because we aren’t protecting burrows than we could ever raise in a lab,” Goessling said.
Making development more sustainable is “this really impossible, tough nut to crack,” he said, and would require big changes in the way people approach construction and land management. But saving existing habitats and adult tortoises will go further than trying to create new ones, Goessling said.
“Until we stop developing adult tortoise burrows without any sort of mitigation, then we’re fighting a losing battle on private lands,” he said.
THE ‘GREAT WEALTH’ OF THE LONGLEAF PINE
Like the gopher tortoise, the longleaf pine likes to take its time.
It spends the first few years of its life growing a deep taproot, rather than the shallower roots of species like the loblolly pine, said Ad Platt of the Longleaf Alliance. The longleaf pine takes 100 years to reach its full size, and it can live as long as 500 years.
Due to its slow growth and deep roots, the longleaf pine is stronger and more resilient to wind and weather than its cousin pine species. Its higher quality was an initial part of its own destruction, Platt said, as vast acres of longleaf pines were cut down across the Southeast for lumber.
“Longleaf pine is the native dominant pine ecosystem in Alabama,” he said. “It was part of the great wealth that we found here when Europeans arrived.”
Forests have also been divided by roadways and other development, limiting their growth and creating a new hazard for tortoises and other species on the move.
A longleaf pine savanna isn’t like other forests. The trees are tall — as much as 80 to 100 feet — and spread far apart from one another, allowing plenty of sunlight to reach the smaller plants below.
But that sunlight is also enticing to fast-growing plant species that can’t coexist with the longleaf pine. These savannas need periodic, small fires, which kill plants that would otherwise slowly crowd out the more fire-resistant longleaf pines.
“It’s not just a tree of the deep sands or the coastal plains, but instead it lived in a variety of habitats when fire was the dominant force shaping environments,” Platt said.
Human suppression of natural fires over the last few centuries has enabled denser forests to encroach and replace longleaf pines and other grasslands.
Crowded out by cogongrass
One particularly aggressive invader of Alabama’s longleaf pine savannas is called cogongrass. It originally came to the Southeast through Gulf Coast seaports as a shipping material about a century ago, and it was also intentionally planted in Florida.
Platt said cogongrass is hardy, and only a small segment of its roots need to be picked up and moved by machinery, like a lawnmower or bulldozer, to establish a whole new colony. Once it starts growing, he said, it’s expensive and difficult to get rid of it.
“It takes over the understory and we don’t really have the space to have the diverse plants,” Hodges said.
While cogongrass is especially widespread in coastal areas like Mobile and Foley, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) says it can be found in 75% of Alabama’s counties.
“It’s on the move,” Platt said.
ADAI started an awareness campaign about cogongrass in March 2022 to encourage people to report and remove the plants when they find them. Platt said the Longleaf Alliance and its partner organizations have also made controlling the grass’s spread a high priority.
“It could negate all this tremendous effort in a lot of places,” he said.
These twin threats of human development and invasive species have reduced longleaf pines to disconnected fragments of forests, occupying only a fraction of their former range.
“As this forest type was disappearing, so was the habitat for a vast range of diversity,” Platt said.
After evolving alongside each other for thousands of years, both the longleaf pine and the gopher tortoise benefit from the other’s presence.
Gopher tortoises need the sunny, spacious terrain to eat, dig and otherwise do what a tortoise does. The periodic fires clear out the brush and thick vegetation that would prevent their movement through the undergrowth. It also “sets the table,” Platt said, by bringing food sources back down to their level.
And the tortoise burrows, in return, are a critical shelter for many species during fires, enabling the ecosystem to restore its balance quickly after the fire passes.
Protecting longleaf pines also protects gopher tortoises, and vice versa, Platt said. The Longleaf Alliance, which started at Auburn University in 1995, is part of a larger coalition called America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI) that is trying to create a “sustainable future” for these forests, Platt said.
“Whoever’s sharing that objective bands together, because none of us has enough resources to do as much independently as we can do together,” he said.
The ALRI has implementation teams, five of which overlap Alabama, Platt said. These teams focus on “strongholds” of existing longleaf pine habitats and try to improve them and build outward, rather than “shotgunning our efforts” to try to save every fragment of longleaf pines they can find, he said.
There are active projects to conserve and replant longleaf pines on public lands including Conecuh National Forest, Talladega National Forest, the Chattahoochee Fall Line Wildlife Management Area in Georgia and Desoto National Forest in Mississippi, Platt said. The U.S. FWS also protects and manages longleaf habitats on several National Wildlife Refuges in Florida.
However, most of Alabama’s remaining longleaf pines are on private land.
“For this to be successful, it has to engage and involve the private landowner,” Platt said.
Through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, the FWS Alabama field office works with property owners and groups like the Longleaf Alliance and the Alabama Forestry Foundation on restoring at-risk habitats and species, Hodges said. Between 2010 and 2019, the FWS estimates the program worked on management of about 65,000 acres of private land that benefit gopher tortoises and their ecosystem.
The program’s role is primarily to provide education, technical assistance and sometimes financial resources, Hodges said.
They also connect landowners with resources they may not know about, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Longleaf Pine Initiative and nonprofits like the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Longleaf Landscape Stewardship Fund. In 2022, the Stewardship Fund awarded $675,000 to longleaf restoration and landowner outreach projects in Alabama.
“We’ve made some pretty big strides and we’d really like to grow those partnerships to new audiences,” Hodges said.
“It’s going to cost you a bit more to make the right choice rather than the easy choice, and we shouldn’t be surprised. And you have to have a long-term vision.”Ad Platt, Longleaf Alliance
Platt said the Longleaf Alliance hears from “more and more landowners every day” who want to learn more about the longleaf pine ecosystems that are or used to be on their properties.
Only about 3 to 5% of private landowners have a management plan for their undeveloped properties, Platt estimated.
“What that indicates is an awful lot of land that just isn’t managed actively,” he said.
But landowners who decide to restore longleaf pines and put in the effort to maintain them, Platt said, tend to be the best at managing and caring for their land.
“It’s going to cost you a bit more to make the right choice rather than the easy choice, and we shouldn’t be surprised. And you have to have a long-term vision,” he said. “… They recognize that it’s not the fast, easy thing to do, that restoring an ecosystem may take longer than our lifetime to do.”
Some landowners, Platt said, are interested in bringing back the past.
“They often say they want to put it back to the way their grandparents had it, or the way they remember it from early childhood,” he said.
Others are interested in longleaf restoration because it will create more valuable future properties for their families, Platt said, or because they enjoy hunting the deer, turkeys and other game animals that the ecosystem attracts.
Platt said the Longleaf Alliance tries to keep all those options on the table when educating landowners about habitat restoration.
Hodges said the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program also has agreements with several small timber companies and mom-and-pop tree farms that are interested in making their work more sustainable.
“They’ve been really great to work with,” he said.
There are about 1,000 acres of new longleaf pines being planted on public lands and 11,000 acres on private lands in Alabama each year, Platt said. However, planting is only the start.
“There’s a tremendous amount of energy that follows just planting,” Platt said.
The soil and landscape have to be prepared in order to be suitable for longleaf pines, especially if agriculture or other uses have significantly changed it.
“The more altered it is, the heavier the lift,” Platt said.
Then, landowners have to keep up a schedule of controlled burns to fill the role that naturally occurring fires once did. Platt said fire is “really the most effective and efficient tool that we have for restoring this diversity over time.”
When people see a gopher tortoise near the edge of a road, Platt said that’s a good sign that the neighboring longleaf forest needs to be burned, because the tortoise likely can’t navigate the thick undergrowth.
Platt estimated that there are prescribed burns on roughly 184,000 acres of public lands and 258,000 acres on private lands each year.
Longleaf pine forests have been on a slow but steady rise since 2009, Platt said, as has the public interest in restoring them. He described the Longleaf Alliance’s work as hopeful but “always challenging.”
A SLOW MARCH FORWARD
The future for gopher tortoises, Guyer said, will probably look a lot like their recent past. The species is unlikely to recover the widespread habitat or the population numbers it once had. However, that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless.
“Over the entire range of the species, I think we’re going to see population declines,” Guyer said. “My hope is there will be places where we make a stand and improve habitats, where we can preserve these genetic populations.”
Platt feels more optimistic about longleaf pines, since restoration efforts have led to a rebound in the past decade. One of the best tools for climate change, he said, is to “grow more forest better and longer, and then when we do use them, make durable products that last for centuries.”
“This is a hopeful story. And this is also the largest ecosystem restoration effort in the entire country,” Platt said.
With two such long-lived species, we may have to wait for future generations to know the outcome.
“These things that we’re starting will outlive all of us, potentially by a long, long way,” Platt said.
Main article image courtesy of Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons.