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Press Release

Alabama Gopher Tortoises Are “On the Move” - Wehle Forever Wild Tract Becomes New Home for Threatened Species

September 28, 2006

September 28, 2006

Contact: Greg Lein, 334-242-3484

The Wehle Forever Wild Tract, located in Bullock County is the new habitat for ten gopher tortoises. The population of gopher tortoises is decreasing in Alabama and other areas of the nation where they are found. In an effort to protect and increase the population, The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) is capturing and relocating gopher tortoises to a protected habitat.

The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is a part of the land tortoise family, originating in western North America nearly 60 million years ago. Since then, gopher tortoises, or “gophers” as they are better known, migrated to upland habitats in the coastal plain of the United States including southwestern Alabama.

Since mid-August, state biologists and wildlife experts have been trapping gopher tortoises on the Three-Notch Plantation (a private landowner donor site) in Midway, Alabama for relocation to the Wehle Tract where they will be tested, observed, protected and hopefully thrive in their new home. The relocation will assist in two ways – helping the old population to repopulate and giving the new population more room to roam.

The population of gophers continues to decrease due to several reasons – habitat destruction, illegal hunting, predators, disease, forest mismanagement, starvation, road mortality, and poisoning. As part of the ADCNR’s Section 6 Threatened and Endangered Species Projects FY06, specified landowners are offered the Gopher Tortoise Relocation Initiative (Project 109), which helps relocate gopher tortoises from specified private lands to state owned lands. Commissioner Barnett Lawley is pleased that another of Alabama’s wildlife species is being protected and preserved.

“The gopher tortoise is one of the many unique animals in Alabama that need our help to thrive in their natural habitat,” said Lawley. “We appreciate landowner Virginia Swift sharing the strong population of gophers from her plantation to help initiate a new population at the Wehle Tract for conservational and educational purposes.” The 1,505 acres of rolling pine hills and hardwood branch bottoms of the Wehle Tract and Wildlife Management Area, is used for public recreation, a nature preserve and is home to the Wehle Land Conservation Center. 

The Robert G. Wehle Land Conservation Center is located on 50 acres and is designed to enhance land stewardship and provide an understanding of man’s relationship with the environment. The facility, provided by the ACDNR State Lands Division, promotes conservation and environmental education for the public. A state-of-the-art audiovisual theater focuses on the natural wonders of outdoor Alabama. Additionally, a conference area/exhibit room is available for conservation meetings and hands-on nature presentations. Remote from the main building at the edge of a small wetlands, a viewing kiosk provides naturalists with an up-close and personal experience with the inhabitants of Alabama's wetland. Three trails extend away from the Center, taking hikers on short, medium, and long treks through different habitats. The trails are augmented with interpretive stations highlighting the unique characteristics of many local plants and animals and offer visitors fitness opportunities. A large pond provides opportunities for scheduled fishing events.

The Wehle Land Conservation Center is also the location of Alabama Outdoor Heritage Day where visitors of all ages can step back in time and celebrate old time outdoor activities, food, music and fun. Admission is free to this annual celebration, which includes activities such as log cabin and primitive furnishing exhibits, quilting demonstrations, pine needle basket making, native plant vendors, and much more. This year’s event will be held on Saturday, October 14. The Wehle Land Conservation Center is located approximately five miles Southeast of Midway, Alabama on County Road 47. Take U.S. Hwy. 82 from either Montgomery or Eufaula to Midway and follow the “Nature Center” signs.

Before being released onto the Wehle Tract, the gophers were tested for a highly contagious, upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) commonly observed in gophers. “Most gopher tortoises are considered silent carriers with no signs of URTD symptoms,” said ADCNR Terrestrial Zoologist Eric Soehren. “Blood tests determine the extent of the URTD in the gophers. Only non-symptomatic gophers are being relocated to the Wehle Tract.” Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Emmett Blankenship assisted ADCNR wildlife personnel in performing the tests and alerted them on what symptoms to look for in the gophers. All of the newly relocated gopher tortoises tested negatively for the disease.

The Alabama gopher tortoise is a protected non-game species; populations west of the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers are federally listed as a Threatened Species. Additionally, the gopher tortoise is on the list of species in Alabama, which makes it illegal, per state law, (Nongame Species Regulation 290-2-.92) to take, capture, kill, or attempt to take, capture or kill, possess,

sell, trade for anything of monetary value, or offer to sell or trade for anything of monetary value, (or any parts or reproductive products of such species) without a scientific collection permit or written permit from the ACDNR commissioner.

Gophers can be found in the following Alabama counties: Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Baldwin, Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Clarke, Crenshaw, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Monroe, Montgomery, Pike, and Wilcox. Additionally, small populations occur in Autauga and Macon counties where man introduced them. Alabama is one of only six southern states (Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) where gopher tortoise populations are currently found.

Gophers live in extensive subterranean burrows among longleaf pine sandhills, shrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, and sand dunes. They also live in man-made environments, such as pastures, old fields, and along grassy roadsides. Gophers are unique as they are one of the few tortoises that dig and live in long burrows that can measure up to 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. They dig their homes with their shovel-like feet and spend about 75 percent of their lives inside. Additionally, gopher burrows offer refuge to other animals such as mice and rats, gopher frogs, gopher crickets, and snakes including the federally threatened indigo snake. Gophers mainly feed on low-growing plants that require an abundant amount of sunlight.

To learn more about gopher tortoises, contact Eric Soehren, ADCNR Lands Division National Heritage Section, at         334-834-4519 or Eric.Soehren@dcnr.alabama.gov. 

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabamans natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Parks, State Lands, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR and Alabama Outdoor Heritage Day, visit www.outdooralabama.com.

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