The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it has added gopher tortoises to the list of candidate species eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This listing creates no new land-use changes, but it does open the door for more federal funding for tortoise conservation work on private and public land.
Giving the plight of gopher tortoises more attention and putting more effort into protecting their habitat could be enough to turn around the decline in the only tortoise found in the wild in the eastern U.S., federal officials say.
A federal study found gopher tortoise numbers and habitat have dipped to levels that could merit listing as a threatened or endangered species. But the Fish and Wildlife Service said it opted not to make that move because the agency’s “limited resources must be devoted to other, higher priority action.”
“The real challenge now is to fine tune on-the-ground management and reach out to more private landowners, who can have profound impact on recovery,” said Cynthia Dohner, Southeast regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
South Carolina constitutes the northern edge of the gopher tortoise range, which goes as far west at Louisiana and south into Florida. The largest known populations in South Carolina are on state-owned property at Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve in Jasper County and Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve in Aiken County.