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A Florida scientist clears up misinformation about gopher tortoises being denied endangered status

Gopher tortoise. Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Gopher tortoise. Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Gopher tortoises are protected at the state level through their listing as a "threatened" species in Florida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered adding federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, but found the reptiles didn't meet the criteria on October 11.

After the decision, one researcher said he's noticed people sharing misinformation on what the federal finding really tells us about the gopher tortoise population. Jeffrey Goessling, assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College, spoke with WUSF's Jessica Meszaros to clear up some falsehoods.

What does the Fish and Wildlife's finding document actually say?

The finding document states that gopher tortoise conservation at the state level is critical to maintaining populations. And so, while the U.S. Endangered Species Act, by way of the Fish Wildlife Service, is not at this point going to federally protect tortoises under the Endangered Species Act, that finding hinges on effective state level management of the species.

And so, the finding document found that gopher tortoises are indeed threatened by development. It found that gopher tortoises are threatened by poor habitat management. It found that these two things are serious risks to tortoises. In effect, they found somewhere in the ballpark of 30% to 40% of gopher tortoises will be lost in the coming years within our lifetimes- that's a pretty major negative effect to have found in the document.

Click here to view the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s findings on gopher tortoises.

It's not that they found that these declines are happening and they're just saying, “we take no action.” They're saying that the conservation measures that had been found based on this assessment require that the state maintains effective conservation for the species.

Do you think there were misconceptions among members of the public and the media about this move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

I do. There's an implication that the Fish Wildlife Service removed protections for gopher tortoises. They did not. If we wanted to think of the immediate protection level changes for the species, this finding document found no change.

It basically established tortoises in their far western distribution- so, in southern Mississippi, southeastern Louisiana and southwest Alabama - will remain as federally threatened. That was the case before this document. And it found east of there - so, southcentral Alabama, through Florida, up to southeastern South Carolina - their protection status also remains unchanged, which was not federally listed before, and is still protected in every state at the state level. Many people have perceived this lack of up-listing species to be species protections were removed. And they were not.

Based on your field experience, do you think the species qualifies as endangered?

In understanding what the U.S. Endangered Species Act describes as an endangered species, it is defined as being one that's at eminent risk of extinction. Eminent risk of extinction means that things are very much at the precipice of no longer existing.

I would rather not answer “do I really think it's endangered,” and more describe what I know that to be true about the species as a conservation scientist, and let the litigative process and the decision-making sit with the decision makers. So, some things that I think are true: the species is suffering severe declines - that is, without a shadow of a doubt the case. This is happening at the population level. We are losing huge numbers of populations of tortoises on a nearly daily basis, across the species distribution. It happens at the individual level.

Do I see that populations of tortoises are at extreme levels of risk? Without a shadow of a doubt. “Does this risk count as an eminent risk of extinction?” is a question that I don't really feel qualified to answer. Because, again, this hinges on how the Fish and Wildlife Service determines what is eminent risk of extinction.

Do I think that the species is in good shape right now? Certainly not. I think the species is facing a great deal of challenges. And I think that the listing decision indicated that - again, the listing decision finds that there will be precipitous declines within the next 40, 60 and 80 years. And the question is: do those declines amount to something that will cause an elevation within federal status?

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Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.