Gopher Tortoise Initiative

For years, conserving the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem has been a high conservation priority in Georgia.

Now, fueled by the need to accelerate this work to benefit one of this ecosystem’s keystone species and aided by an uncommon level of site specific knowledge, we seek to permanently protect a minimum of 100,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat in Georgia and thereby benefit other species that depend on longleaf habitat, including the striped newt, indigo snake, flatwoods salamander, gopher frog, southern hognose snake, and eastern diamond‐backed rattlesnake. Our success will also result in the establishment of new public recreation areas for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor activities; preclude the need to list the gopher tortoise under the Endangered Species Act, and provide assurances for a more compatible economic environment for Georgia’s business community.

Current Status of Gopher Tortoise Populations

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and partners have actively surveyed gopher tortoise populations throughout Georgia, allowing us to create a prioritization list informed by the best available science.  A minimum viable population is considered to be 250 adult tortoises.  There are about 122 viable populations in the state, of which roughly 38 are permanently protected.  A minimum goal to avoid a listing is to permanently protect 65 of the 122 viable populations through a combination of fee simple acquisitions and conservation easements.  Georgia DNR believes this action will protect enough habitat to preclude the need to list the gopher tortoise as well as the multiple other species being considered for federal listing that depend on this habitat type.

Courtesy of Georgia DNR (Click to Enlarge)

Courtesy of Georgia DNR (Click to Enlarge)

Georgia DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have developed a draft map (right) that subdivides South Georgia into regions and indicates how many gopher tortoise populations are currently protected in each region and how many more need to be protected to avoid a federal listing.  This map and the gopher tortoise survey data will drive this project.

The Opportunity

Within the Southeast, we are at the proverbial fork in the road. One route, taking no action, could lead to a federal listing of the gopher tortoise, which could have a negative impact in the region due to increased federal oversight of many sectors of the Georgia economy, including commercial growth, agriculture, the timber industry, and activities on military bases. The other route, investing in land to protect gopher tortoise habitat that in some cases will provide public recreation land, requires creativity and action with the anticipated result of conserving a flagship species and its endangered and iconic habitat and avoiding a federal listing.  If we are not proactive and the gopher tortoise is listed, people may ask why we didn’t take action when we had time to do so.  It is far more expensive to correct a problem than to take steps to avoid one. And, rarely do we have such an opportunity to accomplish collaborative conservation results at this scale.

To date the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative is a collaborative effort between Georgia DNR, the Georgia Forestry Commission, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Department of Defense, The Knobloch Family Foundation, The Conservation Fund, The Georgia Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, The Orianne Society and the USFWS.  Based on field work to identify properties with viable populations of gopher tortoises, Georgia DNR and partners established a goal for the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative to preserve a minimum of 100,000 acres of land.  The belief is this would preclude the need to list the gopher tortoise and numerous other species while also protecting our water sources, important conservation areas and providing additional public recreation lands.  Considering this would be achieved through fee simple purchases and conservation easements, because we recognize not all landowners will sell their properties, the cost to protect this land was projected to hit $150M. 

This campaign is geared to protecting and managing enough gopher tortoise habitat to preclude a listing.   The partners working on this effort realize that protection of the land is not enough to ensure the gopher tortoise and multiple other at‐risk species found in this community are sustainable.  Restoration and long‐ term management of these lands will be critical.  As such, the partners are looking at ways to establish a stewardship fund to address these needs.  Preliminary discussions indicate this fund will need to be in the $30 million range to assure that these properties are able to maintain viable populations.

Projected funding for the $150M land protection campaign would come from three sources; the State of Georgia ‐ $50M; Federal funding ‐ $50M; and private foundations and donors ‐ $50M (The Knobloch Family Foundation has already pledged $12.5M to this initiative).  We now seek to refine roles and responsibilities for implementing organizations, invite new supporters and establish an aggressive, shared work plan.

Key Challenges of the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative

  • Ability to move quickly, critical conservation lands are being lost at an alarming rate;

  • Continued State funding for acquisition of new public lands and conservation easements over targeted private lands;

  • Private funding for new public lands and conservation easements on private lands;

  • Funding for management and restoration of newly acquired gopher tortoise conservation lands;

  • Working with industry, agriculture, mining and solar partners early in their site location process to avoid key habitat.

Courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources

If you have any questions regarding the Georgia Gopher Tortoise Initiative, please contact Georgia Conservancy Communications Director Brian Foster at