Gopher Tortoise Conservation Bank Established in Mississippi


Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Ever wonder if the pine trees dotting the roadside across the southeastern United States are longleaf, loblolly, or any of the other 125 possible species of pine growing worldwide? If you say no, you’re not alone. After all, a pine tree is a pine tree right?
The habitat created beneath the canopy of a pine forest is home to many plants and animals. And though they cannot verbalize the differences, their reaction to one versus another is profound: they either thrive or they die.
Take, for instance, the gopher tortoise. The burrowing reptile requires sandy soil for digging shelter, plenty of sunlight for basking, and herbaceous dietary needs sustainable at ground level from native grasses, flowers, fruits, and berries.
A longleaf pine forest promotes this type of habitat through a variety of naturally-occurring ecological checks and balances, the primary of which is fire. As an element, fire’s effects are critical for controlling excessive underbrush development, which prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor and essentially suffocates life at ground level.
Modern culture’s ability to prevent and extinguish fire, understandably in the name of safety, has unknowingly had a negative impact on naturally fire-resistant longleaf pine forests.
The rapid decline of habitat has placed the gopher tortoise, as well as the red cockaded woodpecker and carnivorous pitcher plants on the endangered species list.  Without human intervention, the threat of extinction is a probable reality.
Approved on September 17, 2009, Chickasawhay Conservation Bank (CCB) has been developed to restore and maintain in perpetuity longleaf pine forest on its 1,220 acres in Greene County, Mississippi. The bank integrates roughly 250 tortoises from impacted sites in Alabama west of the Tombigbee River, and east of the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, area.
Despite declining habitat, the bank remains home to a few native tortoises. With limited chance of reproduction – tortoise reach sexual maturity between ages 10 and 15 – the colony will disappear without additional population and improved habitat.
“Fortunately, improvements will be recognized rapidly with the introduction of prescribed burning,” said John McGuire, project manager for CCB.
McGuire said non-native invasive species such as cogon grass and red-imported fire ants will also be controlled to assist in the recovery of the gopher tortoise. Additionally, resident and transient tortoise will be tested for the presence of Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD), a fatal infection first discovered in 1991 amongst populations in Sanibel Island, Florida, to prevent its spread to the bank.
“Our goal is to restore and maintain a longleaf pine habitat by using natural controls like fire and the reintroduction of native plants.  This restored habitat will allow the resident gopher tortoise to flourish. Additionally, relocating gopher tortoises from impacted sites to the CCB will hopefully increase the opportunity for more baby tortoises in the near future.” he said.
Land developers whose proposed projects negatively affect a species – in this case it would be the gopher tortoise – may buy mitigation credits in an approved and permitted conservation bank.  Conservation banks ensure a large habitat relevant to the impacted area will be restored and maintained in perpetuity.

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