It was kind of a big hole, fringed with roots and spiderwebs. Jensen ran a long cable down into the dark, peering into a yellow box where a TV screen showed what was happening 10 feet down, then 15 feet.
At 20 feet, far beneath the sunny surface, he spotted what he was looking for: the sandy rear end of a big tortoise.
Although it’s Georgia’s state reptile, the gopher tortoise is an unassuming animal. It hides not only in its shell but underground in a burrow that may extend 50 feet.
But it’s not alone in there.
More than 300 other animals, including rare and threatened animals like indigo snakes and gopher frogs, use gopher tortoise burrows and some of them live nowhere else. Some plants will only germinate once they’ve passed through the gut of a gopher tortoise.
They could all be in trouble.
In 2011, federal environmental officials determined that the gopher tortoise is threatened enough through its entire range to qualify for extra protection under the Endangered Species Act. Being listed as threatened or endangered under the act criminalizes harm to the animals, opens up funding for research and habitat restoration, and provides tax benefits to private landowners who manage their land to benefit the species.
Nevertheless, Jensen said Georgia wildlife officials think gopher tortoise populations in the state would actually suffer from an endangered species listing, because many private landowners are hostile to interference from federal officials. And about half of gopher tortoises in the state are believed to be on private land.
The tools provided in the Endangered Species Act, such as bans on killing individual animals or destroying their home habitat, might be more important for species that live in areas ripe for development, Jensen said.
But most gopher tortoises live in rural areas that are most often used for forestry or hunting. It’s not hard to manage for those uses to benefit both gopher tortoises and the landowner, Jensen said.
The gopher tortoise is an indicator species for healthy longleaf pine forests. Those grassy woods once covered more than half of what is now Georgia and hosted a greater array of species than other North American forests. But they were mostly logged and replaced with faster-growing pines that provided quicker profits. The state and federal government have invested millions in recent years to restore that habitat, often by removing hardwood trees and conducting controlled burns.
Various state wildlife grants, which are actually a mix of federal grants with state and private matching funds, have funded more than $4 million in habitat restoration since 2005. Much of that was specifically related to gopher tortoises, according to data provided by Matt Elliott, a state Department of Natural Resources program manager in the non-game conservation section. The tortoise populations are largest in the Fall Line sandhills and southwest Georgia.
These grants have allowed the state to build partnerships with landowners.
“Through those programs their trust level for the government grows, and they learn the value of longleaf and gopher tortoises and grow pride in it,” Jensen said.
Jeremy Coleman owns 1,133 acres next to the state-owned Black Creek area in Taylor County.
“I don’t know much about timber and wildlife management,” said Coleman. “But I wanted some land to manage and hunt. ... I didn’t know what a gopher tortoise was.”
Nathan Klaus, a senior DNR wildlife biologist, approached him, offering to help him develop a management plan for the land. Although Coleman says he was hesitant, he appreciated the knowledge of the state and federal experts he was able to work with.
“I’d advise anybody to do this,” he says now. “In my experience, it’s been great.”
Coleman’s land had been covered in Florida sand pine, which isn’t marketable because the fibers and knots make it undesirable for pulp mills, Klaus said. Coleman received about $42,000 in federal and state grants to cut it down, buy longleaf pine seedlings and plant them on 80 acres.
He shared the total cost, but “without the state’s help I couldn’t afford to do it,” he said.
Coleman plans to plant 75 more acres of longleaf in the next few weeks and knock down 200 more acres of sand pines this winter for replanting.
His longleaf seedlings planted last year still look like grass tufts. Coleman, a father of five, said he wants to take pictures of his eldest sons next to the trees each year to watch how they grow together. Longleaf pines take longer to mature than others, but they can live for hundreds of years.
“His land will now be productive,” Klaus said. “He can plant longleaf, thin them and make money off it.” And the area once totally bereft of ground cover under the sand pines will now be great habitat for gopher tortoises.
Klaus and Jensen say the gopher tortoise highlights a key weakness in the Endangered Species Act: It’s focused on preventing humans from making changes that harm rare animals, but it doesn’t recognize that not doing things — like conducting controlled burns — can also be a problem.
For example, gopher tortoises need sandy areas where light reaches the ground to grow native grasses and warm the cold-blooded turtles. A landowner could easily force out gopher tortoises — even if they were classified as endangered — by simply allowing trees to grow so close together that the ground is mostly shaded.
“Doing nothing and letting it grow into thick pine doesn’t count, even though tortoises would move out, so it’s legal,” Klaus said. “That’s what we really fear.”
Jensen said his experience working with flatwoods salamander was that some timber companies stopped allowing him to survey for the animal on their land once it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, because they were afraid they’d have to stop a certain common tree-planting method. He said he’s concerned something similar would happen if the gopher tortoise is listed, even though cutting timber around the animal is fine as long as loggers steer clear of burrows.
So Georgia wildlife officials have joined other states, private industry and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in drafting a new conservation strategy for the tortoise, to try to revive its population enough to keep it off the list.
The listing decision probably won’t be made for at least three years, but the conservation strategy will be finished next year, allowing quicker progress, said Matt Hinderliter, the lead gopher tortoise biologist for the service.
“I’ve never been involved in such a wide-ranging strategy in so many different states” for a single species, he said.
The tortoise has been federally listed as threatened in its western range (Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Alabama) since 1987. Despite those years of experience, scientists are still trying to pinpoint how large a viable gopher tortoise population must be and how much space it needs. Broad agreement on this and on other key practices, such as the best ways to move and release tortoises, could speed up the species’ recovery, Hinderliter said.
Jensen is working with many private landowners to survey for tortoises, since he still doesn’t have a good estimate of how many live in the state.
Surveyors walk straight lines and look for burrows, checking them with cameras and measuring their width to estimate the size and thus the age of the resident tortoise. Jensen estimated that about 300 burrows on 45 properties have been surveyed, close to half on private land. But he said that represents “the tip of the iceberg” of gopher tortoises on private property.
Recently, Jensen checked five burrows on the Black Creek area, finding gopher tortoises in four of them — an unusually good success rate. In front of the burrow is an “apron” of sand dug out when the burrow was created. Several were marked by the tracks of armadillo, which use the burrows, and one had the visible deep toe marks of the tortoise itself.
The soundtrack to Jensen’s work included quail whistling and distant booms from Fort Benning. There are large, healthy tortoise populations at Fort Benning and Fort Stewart. If the tortoises were added to the endangered species list, that also might limit the use of heavy machinery and military vehicle training at those and other military bases, Jensen said.
He said his surveys often find large burrows, but that’s not the good news it might seem. No smaller burrows means few young tortoises are surviving, so the population could die off as the older generation ages.
The tortoise’s life cycle is much like a human’s: They don’t begin reproducing until their mid-teens, and they live 50 to 100 years. This can make it hard to convince the public that the animals are rare, because people may see the same turtles every year and assume the population is healthy.
And the turtle’s long period of juvenile development means it’s impossible to reverse the decline quickly, Hinderliter said. That’s why the conservation effort is moving into high gear now.
“You need a couple of decades to know if your management is even working,” he said. “That’s a huge problem with the tortoises.”