Program promising for gopher tortoises

Georgia and Florida landowners must apply by April 30

Image: gopher tortoise

Gopher tortoises will receive some much needed help from a federal Farm Bill program. But interested landowners have only until April 30 to apply for financial assistance through the new Working Lands for Wildlife partnership.

The partnership pairs the Agricultural Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in a conservation effort to restore populations of at-risk species and strengthen rural economies. Threatened by habitat loss, these large land turtles are state-listed as threatened and a candidate for federal protection in Georgia and the rest of their eastern range. (They are already federally listed in Mississippi, Louisiana and western Alabama.)

The program in Georgia will involve restoring and protecting gopher tortoises and their habitat in south Georgia, and to a lesser extent – because of limited habitat on private land – the golden-winged warbler in north Georgia.  Landowners can apply by month’s end through the NRCS’ Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). The cost of conservation practices will be shared for qualifying sites.  Nongame Conservation Section Chief Mike Harris of Georgia DNR welcomed the new partnership. Referring to gopher tortoises, Harris said he’s “excited about the opportunity to focus Farm Bill programs on a species of concern that also benefits other wildlife.”

Working Lands for Wildlife will help private landowners in Georgia create, manage and maintain pine savanna habitat for breeding populations of gopher tortoises. The primary practices will be planting longleaf pine, conducting prescribed burns and removing mid-story hardwoods.  A State Wildlife Grants project in which the Nongame Conservation Section inventoried Georgia’s sandhills habitat, favored by gopher tortoises, helped identify counties the program will benefit most.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)  has been working closely with USFWS and NRCS on this new cost-share opportunity for private landowners to receive funds specifically for managing gopher tortoise habitat. Of the $33 million from WHIP, to share the cost of conservation practices with landowners, approximately $6 million is reserved for improving gopher tortoise habitat throughout its range. The goal of this new funding initiative is to help reverse the decline of seven critical species including the gopher tortoise. This is an amazing opportunity for private landowners in Florida to help conserve this threatened reptile.

Interested producers and landowners in targeted areas can enroll in the WHIP on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office.  In Jefferson/Leon counties in Florida, contact: Steve Tullar, Soil Conservationist USDA-NRCS, 1250 N. Jefferson Street, Monticello, FL. Phone: 850-997-4058, ext 3 or email:

Saving pine savannas and tortoises

Image: Longleaf pine forest

  • Longleaf pine forest, one of the world's most biologically diverse ecosystems, provides critical habitat for gopher tortoises and other imperiled species.
  • The gopher tortoise is a keystone species and indicator of longleaf pine ecosystem health.
  • Gopher tortoises depend on deep, well-drained soils and an open understory. In turn, their burrows provide vital shelter for many at-risk species. Gopher tortoises also help disperse plant seeds.
  • Habitat destruction, degradation and human predation have greatly reduced gopher tortoise populations. More than 90 million acres of the U.S. Southeast was once covered by longleaf pine savanna. About 3.4 million acres remain today.
  • More than 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate ownership.

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service

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