350 species of animals reside in burrows created by gopher tortoises, but the tortoises are in trouble. Protecting them under the Endangered Species Act in Georgia could create red tape and extra costs for Georgia businesses. However businesses are taking what NPR described as an unusual approach: not fighting the listing but joining forces with several environmental groups, wildlife agencies, private foundations, and the Department of Defense to save the keystone species.
Over 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is privately or corporately owned, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Georgia. The reptile is already considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act in its western range in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and environmental groups aim to protect at least 100,000 acres of the creatures’ habitat in Georgia so the reptile won’t need to be listed under the Environmental Species Act there under a project called the Georgia Gopher Tortoise Initiative.
The tortoises – which are Georgia’s state reptile – flourish in longleaf pine forests. In the Southwest, there was once around 90 million acres of longleaf pine – today, there’s around three million acres. Habitat destruction hasn’t helped the gopher tortoise population.
NPR reported the state’s biggest electric company Georgia Power is the largest business involved. Georgia Power is a major landowner, per the publication, and gopher tortoises reside at some of their plants. The company’s wildlife biologist, Jim Ozier, told NPR, “We’re glad to have them here. Gopher tortoises do very well right next door.” He said the company, in addition to planning around gopher tortoises so they’re not impacted by maintenance, is restoring longleaf pine forests.
According to the Georgia Conservancy, protecting the species could help protect water sources, create new public recreation areas, and “provide assurances for a more compatible economic environment for Georgia’s business community.” The state, federal government, and private foundations and donors are, per NPR, raising $150 million for the initiative to protect healthy populations where they are. Funding could go towards acquiring new public lands or “conservation easements on private lands.”