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You are viewing 2021-2022's Keystone of the Sandhills. Click here to see 2020-2021's Keystone of the Sandhills.

Keystone of the Sandhills

Gopher tortoises play a critical role in the structure of ecological communities within the sandy soil habitats throughout the Southeast.

They can be found in the southern third of Alabama, closely associated with soils that were once beach sand, when oceans covered much of present-day Alabama. This relatively large-sized, terrestrial turtle averages 9-11 inches in length with stumpy, elephantine hind feet and flattened, shovel-like forelimbs adapted for digging burrows. Burrows average an impressive fifteen feet long and six feet deep and offer protection from temperature extremes, moisture loss, and predators. Additionally, burrows serve as a refuge for over 350 other species, including species such as the gopher frog, Eastern indigo snake, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and many others that benefit from this association. If this keystone species was lost, other species that depend on the burrow structure for survival would cease to exist.

The greatest threat to their existence is habitat loss and continues to be the main factor leading to gopher tortoise declines. This includes forest land conversion to other uses like subdivisions, solar farms, and pine stands that lack adequate management to maintain open mid-story allowing light to the forest floor propagating herbaceous plants that tortoises require. Gopher tortoises typically inhabit uplands in the Coastal Plain, especially areas with relatively well-drained, sandy soils. Historically, tortoises, along with many other rare species, were associated with the longleaf pine natural communities of the coastal plain. Today, gopher tortoises can be found in many fire-maintained open pine forests with suitable soils, in particular, on Wildlife Management Areas possessing these characteristics. Prescribed fire allows sunlight to reach the forest floor promoting an abundance and diversity of ground cover needed for forage and creates open canopy pine forests that tortoises thrive in. When preferred habitat becomes unsuitable, tortoises move to open areas such as food plots, powerlines and roadsides due to the abundance of forage. The key to maintaining high quality gopher tortoise habitat is prescribed fire every 2 years, which in turn creates great habitat for quail, turkey, deer, and other species that utilize early successional habitats.

The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, along with partners and private landowners, have been working cooperatively to manage for tortoises across their Alabama range. Ongoing conservation efforts include partnerships and outreach through the Gopher Tortoise Candidate Conservation Agreement, Alabama Tortoise Alliance, Gopher Tortoise information meetings, gopher tortoise surveys for qualifying nonindustrial private landowners, along with a variety of education and outreach opportunities for landowners.

Landowner assistance programs are available for management practices that enhance, maintain, or restore gopher tortoise habitat in southern Alabama. The tortoise is a nationally identified target species of the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership (Natural Resources Conservation Services and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) which is a collaborative approach to conserve tortoise habitat on working lands. The Southern Alabama Gopher Tortoise Habitat Project (American Forest Foundation and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program partnership) is focused on enhancing occupied and potential habitat and obtaining information about populations and habitat potential. Common conservation practices include prescribe burning, timber stand thinning, longleaf pine tree planting, and invasive species control.

To find out more about how you can help gopher tortoise conservation, go to www.outdooralabama.com or contact DCNR.Wildlife@dcnr.alabama.gov or 334.242.3469.