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Constitution Lake Constitution Lake © Ken Boff, Friends of Constitution Lakes

Stories in Georgia

Can We Save the Gopher Tortoise?

Protecting longleaf pine habitat for Georgia's state reptile.

The gopher tortoise may not be very, well, charismatic.

But Georgia's official state reptile is inspiring a conservation initiative that will benefit the tortoise, many other species, and people like you who depend on healthy longleaf pine forests for clean water, recreation and more.

The Nature Conservancy is working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other vital conservation partners to protect a minimum of 65 viable gopher tortoise populations by 2020. To meet this goal, the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative (GTCI) aims to raise $150 million from state, federal and private sources to protect 100,000+acres of key habitat, and raise additional funds to manage those lands.

Scientists from The Nature Conservancy, DNR and other partners have concluded that if we can protect 100,000 acres or more of critical gopher tortoise habitat, the species will not need regulatory protection.

Through its support of the Georgia DNR, organizations like the Knobloch Family Foundation are pleased to help fund land protection in Georgia and to be part of a group of funders who represent many aspects of conservation and have united to strengthen the long-term success of the Georgia Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative.

Landowners also benefit from this proactive approach, including timber growers, recreational enthusiasts, farmers, industries, utility companies and military bases.

The collaborative initiative is off to a strong start, with 47 viable gopher tortoise populations now permanently protected-up from 36 when GTCI launched. As of March 2018, private sources have pledged more than $15 million which has allowed GTCI to leverage more than $65 million in federal and state funding. A private foundation has also launched a donation match program to support the gopher tortoise. 

"Goal No. 1 of this initiative is to protect enough of its habitat and make the case that the gopher tortoise will be secure and will not need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act," says Steve Friedman, Chief of Real Estate for Georgia DNR. "And The Nature Conservancy is playing a very important role in helping to protect land, raise critical funds and generate excitement around the benefits of this initiative." 

Gopher Tortoise Hatchling
Gopher Tortoise Hatchling Gopher Tortoise Hatchling © Abby Sinclair/The Nature Conservancy

A Transformational Challenge

Friedman knows the gopher tortoise and its longleaf pine forest well, having worked in their habitat for much of his career. "They're pretty mellow, as far as animals go," he says. "And the way they burrow in the sand, they're like apartment builders for themselves and hundreds of other species."

Gopher tortoises are found from southern South Carolina through the southern half of Georgia, into much of Florida and west into the lower reaches of Alabama and Mississippi.

They thrive in the grassy, sandy soils of open longleaf pine forests that are maintained through the periodic application of prescribed fire. 

From an economic perspective, landowners with gopher tortoises on their property will avoid the costly regulations and policies of the Endangered Species List.

Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia

Inspiring an Opportunity for the Future

"There are multiple benefits to protecting these tortoises in Georgia," says Deron Davis, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in Georgia. "From a conservation perspective, protecting the gopher tortoise's habitat will have wide ranging benefits to animals within its ecosystem that depend on it, including indigo snakes, striped newts, Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnakes, Florida pine snakes and gopher frogs. The people of Georgia will benefit from a quality of life perspective because some of the protected gopher tortoise habitats will be open to the public for recreation. From an economic perspective, landowners with gopher tortoises on their property will avoid the costly regulations and policies of the Endangered Species List." 

You Can Help

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Scientists have identified priority areas for protecting and restoring the tortoise habitat in southern Georgia. Georgia DNR, The Nature Conservancy and other key partners are already connecting with landowners willing to sell land or create conservation easements. Aside from proactively safeguarding tortoise habitat, many appreciate the initiative's multiple benefits of protecting and restoring large forested tracts, such as ensuring clean water and recreational access.