From increasing opportunities to go to the countryside to making forests safe from catastrophic wildfires, NWTF’s conservation work has far-reaching impacts that benefit overall ecological value. The delisting of the gopher tortoise in much of its historical range is a recent demonstration.
Just as wild turkeys benefit from active forest management, so does the famed burrowing turtle of the southeast, gopherus polyphemus.
The keystone species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1987 as a threatened species in the western part of its range, that is, from Alabama to Louisiana. Since its initial listing more than three decades ago, the species has gone through several levels of listing, eventually encompassing the entire Southeast.
However, thanks to the efforts of private owners, state and federal agencies, and conservation partners, the species has been delisted as threatened in the eastern half of its range, including in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and most of Alabama. The tortoise will retain its threatened status in western Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The announcement was made in October by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The NWTF’s role in helping the tortoise is a result of the organization’s longleaf pine conservation efforts.
Longleaf pine ecosystems once dominated the Southeast, stretching from Virginia to Florida and spreading west to eastern Texas, almost mimicking the range of the gopher tortoise. Today, however, estimates show longleaf pine ecosystems encompass about 3% of its historical range and are highly fragmented.
The USFWS equates the decline of the gopher tortoise with the loss and fragmentation of these once abundant ecosystems, but states that the tortoises can be found in open stands of several other southern pine species.
Like the tortoise, wild turkeys and many other species thrive in endangered longleaf pine ecosystems.
“Over time, longleaf pine ecosystems flourished due to natural fires, which retarded hardwoods and other pines that would otherwise create greater competition for forest resources,” said Doug Little, director of NWTF conservation operations for the East. “Burnt forests dominated by long leaves provide a mosaic of habitat for wild turkeys, including herbaceous understory for nesting and hatchling cover, openings for feeding and rearing hatchlings, while providing covered areas for hiding from predators. . A well-managed longleaf pine forest is best for wild turkeys.”
Land tortoises surely use these areas differently from turkeys; however, they benefit from these unique ecosystems and ongoing active management.
The USFWS states that typical gopher tortoise habitat consists of an open canopy with a diverse variety of ground cover vegetation on sandy, well-drained soils with widely spaced trees and shrubs—the kind of place where you might also hear some noise. gobble up.
The NWTF works with private landowners, partners, and agencies to reinforce longleaf habitat by mimicking the natural disturbance of nature to create the early successional habitat mosaic in which turkeys, gopher tortoises, and a host of others thrive. Southeastern wildlife species.
Perhaps most notable has been NWTF’s involvement with the USDA Longleaf Pine Initiative, the US Longleaf Restoration Initiative, and NWTF’s National Forestry Initiative, all working in unison to provide forest stewardship. active on private and public lands throughout the Southeast that promote the health of existing longleaf pines. forests as well as the regeneration of species.
One of the main goals of the NWTF is to connect conservation work done on public land with that on private land. Creating contiguous longleaf habitat is an essential tactic for all involved in longleaf restoration as connected lands provide significantly better habitat than isolated patches.
“Whether on a national forest, a state WMA or working with private landowners, the NWTF has conservation programs in place to provide active management across the board,” Little said. “Our partners also have various programs and pathways to ensure this work gets done. Through this approach, the NWTF and our partners can connect these lands and create contiguous longleaf habitat.”
In addition to NWTF efforts at the national level, NWTF grassroots volunteers are involved in the cause and directly link their efforts to work at the landscape scale. Many NWTF Southeast state chapters dedicated their Super Fund dollars (funds that NWTF volunteers help raise) to active fire management projects that improve longleaf pine ecosystems, such as the Multi-State Implementation Teams and the Fire Management Program. of The Nature Conservancy Fire Management, to name a few.
“Did the NWTF specifically get involved in longleaf restoration to delist the tortoise? No, but we are proud that our efforts are connected to that conservation success,” said Mark Hatfield, national director of conservation services for the NWTF. “The return of the gopher tortoise shows how many different stakeholders in the conservation community come together with multiple interests and benefit an entire ecosystem.”
From the efforts of its dedicated volunteers to multi-partner conservation initiatives, the NWTF will continue its work throughout the Southeast to improve wild turkey habitat and longleaf pine ecosystems, and the additional benefits of the work, such as of the land tortoise, they are sure. growing up.