ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Following a petition and lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today denied Endangered Species Act protections to the eastern population of gopher tortoise. The eastern population of animals are found in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and most of Alabama.
“Denying gopher tortoises the protection they need to survive is indefensible,” said Elise Bennett, Florida director and an attorney at the Center. “It ignores devastating urban sprawl that’s decimated the tortoise’s habitat and will continue to drive the species ever closer to extinction.”
The Service reached its decision despite projecting range-wide population declines over the next 80 years. The greatest declines are expected in the species’ core range in Florida, and the western portion of its range.
Gopher tortoises are severely threatened by development-caused habitat loss and fragmentation. This limits food availability and options for burrow sites, which exposes them to being crushed in their burrows during construction, run over by cars or senselessly attacked by people. Tortoises are also threatened by disease, invasive species like fire ants, and climate change.
“This denial is a blow to the gopher tortoise and all the people who care deeply about this humble creature’s future, but we won’t give up,” said Bennett. “We’ll review this decision closely and fight to get the tortoise the protections it needs to survive.”
Florida, the heart of the tortoise’s range, requires that most tortoises be relocated out of the way of development. But habitat is not protected, meaning tortoises are being squeezed into increasingly smaller areas of available habitat. This past winter, booming development led Florida wildlife officials to issue an emergency executive order because of a shortage of suitable places to put relocated tortoises.
Gopher tortoises have shovel-like front legs and strong, thick back legs that help them dig intricate burrows, which are also used by more than 360 other species. They need large, unfragmented uplands like long-leaf pine forests to survive.
Gopher tortoises in limited parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and western Alabama continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Those in eastern Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have been waiting for protection since 1982.
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