The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is a species of tortoise found in the southeastern United States that excavates and lives in burrows. The gopher tortoise is an important keystone species; its burrows provide habitat for over 360 species across its range, including several legally-protected species such as the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon corais couperi). Recently, the gopher tortoise has experienced significant population declines, largely due to habitat destruction, fragmentation, and degradation. As a result, the tortoise is listed as threatened under both Florida state law and as Threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the western portion of its range. Currently, it is a candidate for listing in its eastern range.
The gopher tortoise inhabits 19 DoD installations in its eastern range as well as the National Guard’s Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in Florida. The ESA requires DoD to protect any federally listed species found on their land, which includes limiting disturbance and impacts during important times of the year (such as during the breeding season for birds) and within important habitat areas when planning training exercises and any construction activities. Often these requirements conflict with planned training and development on base. In the case of the gopher tortoise, however, a revolutionary new strategy - the Gopher Tortoise Conservation and Crediting Strategy (Crediting Strategy) - was enacted after many years of planning and input. The Crediting Strategy specifically protects military training activities and military readiness should the gopher tortoise be listed under the ESA.
This is a revolutionary policy because, rather than automatically requiring conservation actions to be implemented on or near military installations for federally listed species, the Crediting Strategy promotes conservation of areas of greatest ecological value to gopher tortoises. The Strategy expands the options available for DoD to meet its conservation obligations and creates a powerful new tool to protect military readiness under the ESA. The benefits of this new policy are felt not only by the tortoise but also the other 360 species that rely on the same habitat for their survival. There is hope that similar conservation-driven policies can be implemented for other listed species throughout the United States so military readiness and species conservation can benefit from one another.
The combined conservation efforts of NRI and numerous private landowners and stakeholders saved more than 1,000 at-risk gopher tortoises from an uncertain future, while also encouraging population growth in new, long-term environments. This collaboration is only the beginning for other wildlife affected by gopher tortoise populations and can serve as a model for many at-risk species affected by human co-existence issues. Thanks to additional granted funding, NRI researchers aim to continue their work to provide this species a life well-lived.