NCASI participating in study of gopher tortoises in working forests

The gopher tortoise is an ecologically important and iconic species of the US southeastern Coastal Plain that depends on a diverse, herbaceous understory, such as exists under forest stands with an open pine canopy. Populations have declined regionally due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and human exploitation, leading to federal listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1987 of tortoise populations located west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers, including Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that listing the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range was “warranted but precluded” (i.e., candidate status). The Service is scheduled to issue a range-wide listing determination for the species in 2023.

Because privately owned, working pine forests (i.e., pine forests managed primarily for timber products) support gopher tortoise populations, consideration for habitat potential of these working forests could contribute to conservation strategies for this species. However, habitat conditions for gopher tortoises in working forests differ from those in forests managed primarily to meet conservation objectives. In working forests, forest structure and habitat conditions change frequently in response to ongoing forest management practices such as stand establishment, mid-rotation thinning, vegetation management, and fertilization.

The result of this active management is a complex mosaic of habitat conditions that changes over time. Thus, if habitat suitability for tortoises declines in one stand, it may be retained or enhanced in adjacent or nearby stands. But gopher tortoise movements and population dynamics in working forest landscapes have not been studied extensively.

Recently, the University of Georgia, Mississippi State University, NCASI, and NCASI member companies have collaborated to initiate a study of gopher tortoise ecology in working pine forests. The study will seek to address the following key questions relevant to the USFWS’s listing determination.

  • How are forest structure and soil type in working pine forests related to gopher tortoise occupancy, abundance, and habitat use?
  • Can gopher tortoises move to exploit shifting habitat conditions in working pine forests? For example, do tortoises move their burrows from timber stands with high canopy closure to nearby timber stands with more open structure?
  • What is the role of more permanently open features (e.g., roadsides, utility rights-of-way) in supporting tortoise populations in working forest landscapes?

The three-year study is being directed by Dr. James A. Martin, Dr. Michael Chamberlain, Dr. John Maerz and Craig Marshall of the University Georgia, Rachel E. Green of Mississippi State University, Dr. Darren A. Miller of Weyerhaeuser Company, and Dr. T. Bently Wigley of NCASI. Field work will begin in spring 2018.

Contact Information