ATLANTA (CN) — The eastern population of the gopher tortoise is not in danger of extinction and does not require federal protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday in a decision rejecting a call to list the species as endangered or threatened across its entire six-state range.
Although extensive conservation work and state-level protections mean Georgia’s state reptile is no longer a candidate for protection in most of its range, small populations of the gopher tortoise remain threatened in parts of southeastern Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
Despite the threats posed by logging and development that encroaches on the burrowing reptiles’ habitat, federal wildlife officials found in a 113-page decision that gopher tortoises populating the eastern portion of the species’ range, particularly in northern Florida and southern Georgia, are “robust.”
“Efforts to improve conditions for the gopher tortoise have been effective, and it is important that scientists, experts and wildlife professionals continue to strategically use our best resources to help recover the gopher tortoise where it’s most vulnerable,” said Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s southeastern regional director, in a statement.
The agency’s determination comes after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition last year accusing the federal government of dragging its feet on protections for eastern gopher tortoises and 10 other species. The agency and the environmental nonprofit entered into a settlement agreement in April, which led to the review.
Tuesday’s decision drew immediate criticism from the group, which alleged that the review ignored projections which indicate range-wide population declines over the next 80 years.
“Denying gopher tortoises the protection they need to survive is indefensible,” said attorney Elise Bennett, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “It ignores devastating urban sprawl that’s decimated the tortoise’s habitat and will continue to drive the species ever closer to extinction.”
Gopher tortoises are primarily threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by urbanization which limits their access to food and burrow sites. Other threats include death caused by vehicle strikes, invasive species and increases in drought and temperature extremes due to climate change.
Because the long, deep burrows created by the gopher tortoise provide critical shelter for more than 350 other animal species, the reptile is known as a “keystone species,” one important to the survival and overall health of its ecosystem.
Although the gopher tortoise typically measures less than a foot long, it can create burrow systems up to 40 feet long. The burrows are occupied by animals including the threatened Eastern indigo snake, burrowing owls and cave crickets.
Gopher tortoise burrow systems also return leached nutrients to the soil surface and shelter seeds from fires.
The species requires large areas of interconnected, high-quality habitat patches in longleaf pine forests to support healthy populations. But forest clearing and agricultural conversion decimated longleaf pine forests in the 20th century, causing a decline in the ecosystem from an estimated 92 million acres to just 3 million acres.
Longleaf pine restoration programs have helped restore and conserve the habitat, the government said.
Despite the ongoing threats to the animal’s habitat, the agency found that the overall extinction risk for the gopher tortoise in the eastern range is low.
“Although the threats to the species of habitat loss and fragmentation due to urbanization, climate change, sea level rise and habitat management are expected to persist in the foreseeable future and the effects of these threats on this long-lived species will continue at some level, some threats have been reduced and will continue to be reduced through implemented and ongoing conservation actions and regulatory mechanisms,” the decision says.
The gopher tortoise is still protected by state regulations. The agency noted in its statement that “a reevaluation of the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” may be necessary if state protections for the species change.
The Center for Biological Diversity has said it will review the agency’s decision closely.
“This denial is a blow to the gopher tortoise and all the people who care deeply about this humble creature’s future, but we won’t give up,” said Bennett.
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