For Immediate Release, July 26, 2011
Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681
Eastern Gopher Tortoise Added to Waiting List for Endangered Species Act Protection
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— Today a highly imperiled Southeast species, the eastern gopher tortoise, received a positive finding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that provides hope for the species’ survival. The Service announced today that the tortoise qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Rather than being protected, however, it will instead be added to a list of candidate species to await federal protection. The eastern gopher tortoise is found in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and east of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers in Alabama.
“The gopher tortoise is clearly in trouble and if it’s going to survive, it’s going to need the help that only the Endangered Species Act can provide. We hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will prioritize funding to make sure the tortoise gets the protection it needs,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which submitted comments in favor of protecting the tortoise.
Once widespread across the Southeast, the tortoise now persists only in small, isolated populations. Gopher tortoises can live to be more than 50 years old; they build elaborate burrows that provide habitat for more than 360 other species including rabbits, quail, owls, frogs and snakes.
“By making homes for other animals, gopher tortoises play a vital role in the environment, so protecting them would help hundreds of species,” said Curry.
The majority of the tortoises’ preferred longleaf pine habitat has been lost to pine plantations and suburban sprawl. The tortoise is threatened by habitat loss, fire suppression, herbicides used in forestry, rising sea levels caused by global climate change, phosphate mining and disease.
Gopher tortoises are also threatened by rattlesnake hunting when hunters destroy tortoise burrows looking for snakes. “Rattlesnake roundups” — contests in which hunters catch as many snakes as they can — are a known threat to gopher tortoise burrows. Florida no longer has rattlesnake roundups, but there are still two roundups in Georgia and one in Alabama. In today’s finding, the Service suggested that state regulation of rattlesnake hunting would help protect the gopher tortoise.
The western population of the gopher tortoise, in Louisiana, Mississippi, and west of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers in Alabama, has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1987. The eastern population of the tortoise was petitioned for protection in 2006 by Save Our Big Scrub, Inc. and Wild South.
In early July, the Service reached a landmark agreement with the Center to expedite protection for 757 species, including more than 250 candidates, and 403 aquatic species in the Southeast petitioned for protection by the Center in 2010.