Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

Principal Biologist(s)

Magnus McCaffery

Project Location

Nonami, GA
Avalon, FL

Conservation Problem

The primary threats to gopher tortoises are habitat destruction, fragmentation, and degradation.  Populations have also been severely depleted by human predation.

Conservation Status

The gopher tortoise is currently state listed as threatened in Georgia and Florida, and is a candidate species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the western portion of its range in Florida, the species is listed as threatened under the ESA.

Project Goals & Objectives

Our overarching goal is to restore robust and viable gopher tortoise populations to suitable habitat at Nonami and Avalon.

Associated with this goal, our major objectives include:

– Determining the current gopher tortoise population size and density on each property

– Determining the health and disease status of the extant populations

– Working with state and federal agencies to augment the extant populations using translocations

– Establishing minimum densities of 0.4 tortoises/hectare in focal conservation areas at both properties

– Ultimately establishing densities of 1 to 2 tortoises/hectare in focal conservation areas at both properties

– Recording recruitment of juveniles into the populations over time

– Conducting regular population monitoring

– Conducting research on gopher tortoises and their commensal species


Project Background

The Nonami property (3,578 ha) in southern Georgia and the Avalon property (12,584 ha) located near Tallahassee, Florida are principally managed for northern bobwhite quail recreational hunting as well as for ecological conservation. Both properties comprise extensive areas of quality gopher tortoise habitat, characterized by large tracts of suitable soil types combined with a pine/grassland vegetation structure that is maintained by frequent prescribed burns and hardwood mid-story control. Despite habitat conditions conducive to occupancy by large gopher tortoise populations, the species is only patchily distributed on these properties and at relatively low densities. It is likely that gopher tortoises were historically distributed far more widely and in greater densities on these properties.  Reductions in both tortoise range and numbers are most likely due to anthropogenic pressures such as direct consumption of tortoises as food, ‘gassing’ of burrows for rattlesnake control and tortoise collection, as well as habitat loss through historical land management practices.

The importance of restoring robust gopher tortoise populations to Nonami and Avalon is supported by ecological and conservation considerations. For instance, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species in Sandhill, longleaf pine, and shrub ecosystems. Their excavation of deep burrows provides habitat for approximately 60 vertebrate and 300 invertebrate commensal species, many of which are legally protected. Therefore, increasing gopher tortoise densities is expected to enhance local biodiversity, and improve the recovery prospects for other imperiled species that rely on tortoise burrows to meet their ecological requirements. Furthermore, gopher tortoise is state listed as threatened in Georgia and Florida, and is a candidate species for listing under the ESA. We aim to contribute to producing a level of benefit to the species that could preclude or remove any need to list the gopher tortoise under the Endangered Species Act in Georgia and Florida.