By Eric Sprague, Director of Forest Conservation
You probably see trees everywhere you go: along the road as you drive to work, the woods you pass while walking the dog, or the large stretches of forests you drive through on your way to a national park. However, this apparent abundance can be deceiving.
America’s forests are increasingly being chopped up into smaller and smaller areas by development, roads, utility lines and other land uses. As forest is lost, new gaps are created that can cause a host of problems. This activity creates new entry points for invasive plants and pests, introduces sources of wildfire, and allows severe weather and noise to access further into the interior of the forest. These and other associated stressors reduce the overall quality of habitat and ability of forests to provide the natural benefits that we rely on, such as clean air and water.
The loss of habitat and its decline in health is the major threat to North America’s wildlife, including the gopher tortoise. The gopher tortoise is one of four North American tortoises and ranges from far southeastern Louisiana to southern South Carolina and down to the Everglades in Florida.
The tortoise digs extensive burrows that can be up to 50 feet in length and 10 feet deep. These burrows in turn provide shelter for 360 other kinds of animals. When not keeping cool in their underground homes, gopher tortoises like to graze grasses in surrounding habitat — the favorite of which is longleaf pine forests.
This fire-adapted ecosystem used to cover 90 million acres across the Southeastern U.S. Today, longleaf pine forests cover just 3 percent of their former range — a staggering reduction that more than rivals well-known losses in southeastern wetland and world rainforest habitats.
The changing nature of these forests is a real challenge to the gopher tortoise and nearly 600 other species adapted to life in and under longleaf pines. The gopher tortoise is federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in Alabama. East of these rivers, the tortoise is a candidate species, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that listing was warranted, but precluded because they were focusing on higher priority species.