Alabama Power biologists have been busy this summer surveying gopher tortoises in Clarke County.
The survey is being done ahead of planned work on transmission lines. Alabama Power’s rights of way are attractive to the threatened tortoises, particularly in places where there are longleaf pine forests.
“Our rights of way are good habitat for them. They like the open areas, and we keep it well-managed,” said Jason Carlee, Alabama Power Environmental Affairs supervisor.
Before any transmission work is done, Alabama Power biologists survey the area for tortoise burrows. Should any animals be present, transmission work is diverted around the burrow. In some instances, tortoises may be relocated to more suitable areas.
“We first identify the burrows, and if it’s a burrow that cannot be avoided and is likely to be impacted by construction then we send a camera down into the burrow,” Carlee said. “If there’s a tortoise inside, then we will mark around the burrow to keep any activity from impacting them. In some cases, we have to relocate and return them after construction or relocate them permanently. We work with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and US Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure our activities are not having a negative impact on the tortoises or their burrows.”
The gopher tortoise can be found in the coastal plains of Alabama. Within the western part of its range, in Mobile, Washington and Choctaw counties, the tortoise has been listed as a federally threatened species since 1987. In the remainder of its eastern range in Alabama, the tortoise is protected by state regulation.
Gopher tortoises are a keystone species in the longleaf pine ecosystem. They dig burrows as deep as 15 to 20 feet for shelter, but, it turns out, not just for themselves. More than 360 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are known to spend all or part of their lives in either an active or abandoned burrow, according to the Gopher Tortoise Project.
As longleaf pine habitat has shrunk across the Southeast since the 19th century, so has the gopher tortoise population. The Gopher Tortoise Project estimates populations have declined by at least 80 percent in the last 100 years.
In addition to making sure to not affect burrows, Alabama Power and its parent company, Southern Company, support the Longleaf Stewardship Fund, a project of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that works to restore the state’s longleaf pine ecosystem. Other partners include the Alabama Forestry Commission, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
The Alabama Tortoise Alliance is an organization dedicated to conserving gopher tortoise populations and habitats.
“The purpose of the Alabama Tortoise Alliance is to foster and increase communication, collaboration and conservation among stakeholders to actively manage and conserve our tortoise populations and habitats,” said Alabama Tortoise Alliance leader and biologist Ericha Nix. “Alabama Power has been a great conservation partner. They support many of our projects. They also contribute dollars to grant programs like the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that offer competitive funding to conserve both species and habitat like the gopher tortoise and other species associated with longleaf pine habitat.”
Alabama Power also shares data from its surveys with the alliance and other agencies.
Last year, the company signed a Gopher Tortoise Candidate Conservation Agreement for populations east of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers. The purpose of the agreement is to implement proactive gopher tortoise conservation measures across its eastern range.
Since 2011, the gopher tortoise has been a candidate for inclusion on the endangered species list throughout its entire eastern Southeast range, from Louisiana to South Carolina. The information gathered by the company is part of the research that will be used in making a final determination on the species’ status.
“We support the Alabama Tortoise Alliance in multiple ways, by data sharing, attending meetings and assigning trained biologists in surveying this species,” Carlee said. “Our survey information is important and, when combined with other data, will help the US Fish and Wildlife Service come to a listing decision in 2022.”
To find more about the Alabama Tortoise Alliance and ways to get involved, visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/gopher-tortoise-project/alabama-tortoise-alliance.