The western population of the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1987 due to extensive population declines. Declines have been linked to site conversion of native pine (Pinus spp.) forests for urban development, agriculture, and commercial forest management. We conducted surveys to detect tortoise burrows on corporate timberlands in southern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama during summer 1994. We surveyed 2,759 0.5-ha strip transects on soil types of 9 different suitability categories for gopher tortoises. We found 460 active and 264 abandoned burrows on the 1,380 ha surveyed. Edaphic and vegetative conditions, such as sandy soils and total and midstory canopy coverage, influenced gopher tortoise occurrence. Logistic regression analyses revealed that active burrow occurrence was related positively to deep, sandy soils and related negatively to total canopy closure and fine loam soils with limited sand content. Abandoned burrow occurrence was related positively to increasing midstory canopy closure and selected soil types. Sandy soils and open over-story canopy that created favorable burrowing, nesting, and foraging conditions were important influences in active burrow occurrence. Vegetation management techniques, such as prescribed fire, midstory control, and intermediate forest stand thinning, are recommended on gopher tortoise conservation areas and connective corridor habitats on commercial timberlands. We theorize that restoration of longleaf pine (P. palustris) forests on sandy ridges can produce desirable core habitats and dispersal corridors for gopher tortoises in landscapes dominated by intensively managed pine plantations.
longleaf pine ecosystem