The scaly but somehow cute gopher tortoise may be on the fast track for the endangered species list.
The gopher tortoise is one of nearly 150 animal and plant species proposed for the next round of Endangered Species Act additions, which is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The biggest threat is habitat fragmentation, and also degradation,” said Chuck Underwood with the FWS office in Jacksonville. “Gopher tortoises like high, dry, sandy areas. Guess where we like to build? That’s part of the problem.”
Twenty-three new species have been added for FWS consideration: a honey-eating bird found on two islands in the Samoa region of the Pacific Ocean, 18 flowering plants in Hawaii and four species of fern, also found in Hawaii.
Proponents say the ESA, which is typically updated annually, is needed to protect native animals and plants while opponents say the list puts an unfair burden on landowners and developers by requiring federal permits and added ESA scrutiny.
Gopher tortoises are listed as threatened by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is in charge of developing protection plans and management strategies for state listed species. Their burrows are used by hundreds of species, not just the tortoises, and also are protected by state laws.
Including them in the ESA would add a federal layer of protection to existing state and local laws.
FWS records say a species is classified as endangered when it is threatened with extinction throughout a significant portion of its rang. Species attain threatened status when biologists conclude it is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
There must be adequate biological information on a species before it can be added to the candidate list. Species are typically added to the candidate list by FWS (which conducts biological assessments on a variety of species) and through petitions, which are generally filed by groups like the Center for Biological Diversity.
Other Florida species on the candidate list include:
- Florida pineland cragbrass, a perenial plant found in Big Cypres National Preserve and Everglades National Park
- Florida prairie clover, a small shrub found in Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park
- Everglades bully, a shrub found on Long Pine Key and in Everglades National Park
- Striped newt, a small salamander found in northern Florida and Georgia
Underwood said the gopher tortoise may be on the fast-track because biologists have extensive knowledge about tortoise habitat, threats and range.
Maura Krause, who specializes in sea turtles and is an environmental specialist with Collier County, said slow-footed critters are popular at parks like Barefoot Beach preserve just south of Bonita Springs.
“They’re very charismatic, and just watching them eat is very cool,” Krause said. “They’re like little living dinosaurs.”
Krause said some Florida critters would have a difficult time surviving without the burrow-digging tortoises.
“In areas where there is fire, the tortoise burrows provide shelter for a lot of animals during a burn,” Krause said. “More than 300 species use those burrows during their life. A lot of those animals wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for gopher tortoise burrows.”
FWS says more than 350 species have been documented using the burrows.
Krause said gopher tortoise enthusiasts flock to Barefoot Beach Preserve, where tortoises walk, slowly, across the road and, sometimes, under cars.
“You are almost sure to see something there,” Krause said. “People have to look under their car before they leave. We do lose some (to road kill), and that’s sad.”
By the numbers
- 1973: Year Endangered Species Act put in place
- 133: Species listed in Florida
- 45,838: Species listed worldwide
- 350: Species use gopher tortoise burrows as habitat
- 1975: First year candidate list was published
Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, International Union for Conservation of Nature