Wildlife projects aim to help threatened gopher tortoise, conserve ecosystems

Wildlife projects aim to help threatened gopher tortoise, conserve ecosystems

The habitats of Alabama’s threatened gopher tortoises will be the focus of further conservation efforts, thanks to nearly $1 million in federal grants.

The conservation project is taking place in longleaf pine ecosystems in six Southeastern states including Alabama. The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species within that endangered ecosystem because the burrows it digs offer refuge to more than 300 other species, including snakes, frogs and large mammals.

A $500,000 federal grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a $246,748 non-federal match will be used in areas most in need of restoration.

Gopher tortoises living west of the Tombigbee River in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have been federal protected since 1987, while tortoises east of the river have been listed as a candidate for protection.

The tortoise population has been declining for years as many of their habitats have been destroyed. Their presence is critical to maintaining the diversity of wildlife in its habitats.

A second project in Alabama, Florida and Georgia focuses on using pocket gophers to promote diversity in another ecosystem – natural pinelands.

The gophers are known as « ecosystem engineers » because their tunneling aerates soil and provides bare ground that promotes plant growth, in turn providing shelter for insects and small vertebrates.

The project will determine the most favorable conditions for restoring pocket gophers in natural pinelands throughout the Southeast. It will receive $491,667 in federal funding and $217,015 in non-federal matched funds.

The grants are part of $5.7 million the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is providing to protect at-risk species in 11 states. Large-scale projects will focus on the long-term recovery and conservation of species like the monarch butterfly and Topeka shiner, along with the gopher tortoise.

« We appreciate the strong ties formed by state agencies and their partners to protect these imperiled wildlife species and their habitats, » Hannibal Bolton, the Service’s Assistant Director for Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration, said in a news release. « The State Wildlife Grants program is a catalyst for collaborative conservation, and we look forward to continued partnership success for the future of America’s wildlife. »

For a full national list of this year’s State Wildlife Grant projects, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.