LDWF studying gopher tortoise

Staff Writer
Plaquemine Post South

BATON ROUGE - The Louisiana Natural Heritage Program (LNHP), within the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, is currently partaking in habitat restoration and population distribution surveys for gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) within eastern Louisiana.

The multi-year research project is targeting habitat in Washington, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes.

LNHP is working with colleagues throughout the southeastern U.S. on a multi-state habitat restoration project to assist private landowners with habitat management needs including mechanical clearing of understory, herbicide application, prescribed burning and planting longleaf pine. Additionally, LNHP has worked with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to generate priority areas for their Working Lands for Wildlife program that promotes cost share opportunities with landowners for habitat improvements for gopher tortoises.

Gopher tortoises range across portions of the Gulf coastal plain of the southeastern U.S. from southern South Carolina to southeast Louisiana and in Louisiana, Mississippi and western Alabama the tortoise is listed as "threatened" and subject to protection under the Endangered Species Act. The most important reason for the gopher tortoise decline is habitat loss and degradation.

The upland habitats gopher tortoises require are the high and dry sites that are favored for commercial and residential developments. Also, changes in forest management and reduced occurrence of natural and prescribed fire have greatly reduced the amount of open canopy forest that these tortoises prefer.

Gopher tortoises require sandy, well drained soils for digging extensive burrows that provide protection from winter cold and summer heat. This species can be found in a variety of habitat types but prefer well-managed upland longleaf pine and mixed pine-hardwood forest.

An important characteristic of the well-managed forest stands preferred by gopher tortoises is that they have an open canopy that allows ample sunlight to reach the ground to promote the growth of herbaceous food plants and provide sunny areas for nesting and basking. In the absence of preferred habitat, these tortoises will set up camp in marginal habitats such as roadsides, ditch banks, utility and pipeline rights-of-way and pastures.

The LNHP has been working to determine an estimate of the number of gopher tortoises in the state and to implement gopher tortoise habitat conservation measures. In addition, the LNHP strives to identify sites that provide important habitat and add gopher tortoise occurrence records to the LNHP database.

Population estimates for this species are conducted through burrow occupancy surveys. With the use of a specialized scope and camera, researchers can verify the activity status of a burrow and determine the presence of a tortoise.

Individuals living within eastern Louisiana are reminded not to disturb any gopher tortoises seen in the wild. Instead individuals are advised to leave tortoises where they are found in their native habitat.

The open upland forest habitat required by gopher tortoises is one of the most diverse habitats found in Louisiana and among the most quickly disappearing. In addition to gopher tortoises, this type of habitat supports a wide variety of birds, including game birds such as bobwhite quail and wild turkeys.

The LNHP is responsible for conservation of the state's rare, threatened and endangered species and habitats. For more information on the LNHP, visit the program's website at http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/wildlife/louisiana-natural-heritage-program.

To report the sighting of a gopher tortoise, or you are a private landowner in eastern Louisiana and interested in participating in approved gopher tortoise habitat restoration efforts, please contact Keri Landry at (225) 765-2809 or klandry@wlf.la.gov.