Help Us Protect a Vital Part of South Georgia’s Ecosystem
When you think of the environment of south and coastal Georgia, what comes to mind? For some, it may be the heart of Georgia’s agriculture industry; fields of cotton, peanuts, or perhaps neat rows of towering pecan trees. For others, it may be the coastal jewels of Jekyll, St. Simon’s, or Savannah. What if you were told that much of what you envision about this part of our state was reliant on the existence of … a tortoise?
According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, south Georgia is dependent on a small, four-legged creature for much of its environmental well-being. The turtle, or ‘gopher tortoise’ to be exact, is a staple of our vibrant south Georgia ecosystems. The gopher tortoise is considered a “keystone species” in Georgia, meaning that over 200 other species depend on the tortoise for survival. Gopher tortoises grow up to 15 inches long and weigh from eight to 15 pounds; having strong elephant-like back legs and front feet specialized for digging makes them well-adapted for burrowing. These burrows provide a home for the tortoise, but also for hundreds of other species, including: Indigo snakes, frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, owls, lizards, and many others.
The protection and preservation of the gopher tortoise population is imperative for a number of reasons. As our state continues to grow and prosper, we must be mindful of the environmental impact of our success. Protecting the gopher tortoise, and thereby protecting hundreds of other species, is an example of how businesses, state agencies, federal stakeholders, and communities can work together to ensure that we remain good stewards of our state’s resources.
The Department of Natural Resources has established a Gopher Tortoise Initiative to support this gopher tortoise conservation effort. If the gopher tortoise is listed as an endangered species, it will significantly impact business operations in affected regions and potentially increase business costs as strict management protocols and federal regulatory oversight is introduced. The Georgia Chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources Policy Committee has adopted a set of ‘best practices’ in an effort to give businesses and industry participants more information about what a listing of the gopher tortoise would mean for their business operation, and how to approach business development in gopher tortoise-sensitive habitats and surrounding environments.
This is where you come in! The overall funding goal to for the Gopher Tortoise Initiative is $150 million. With a $50 million goal in funds from both the state and federal government, that leaves $50 million from the private sector. We are excited to say that 36% of the private sector goal has already been raised through the generosity of private philanthropic groups. We hope to reach our goal before the tortoise listing question is reevaluated in 2022.
To discuss making your generous contribution to the Gopher Tortoise Initiative please contact the Department of Natural Resources Environmental Review Coordinator at 770-918-6411.
Given the importance of our slow-moving friends to a vital part of our state, the Georgia Chamber, in concert with other stakeholders, has decided to do our share in making sure the gopher tortoise remains protected in its natural habitat. In 2008, the tortoise became a candidate species for listing on the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In Georgia, the state government, the Department of Natural Resources, the Forestry Association, Georgia Power, the Conservation Fund, Georgia Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, and others, have joined together to identify 100,000 acres of strategic land conservation that would help protect the gopher tortoise for decades to come.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has found that there are approximately 122 “viable populations” of gopher tortoise in Georgia. “Viable population” refers to a population of 250 or more adult tortoises; conservation of 65 of the 122 viable populations will be required to prevent listing of the gopher tortoise on the ESA. Currently, we are approaching our goal with 41.4 populations protected!