Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, March 22, 2023


Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950,
Matthew Aresco, Nokuse Education, Inc., (850) 585-5415,

Lawsuit Launched Over Denial of Endangered Species Protection to Gopher Tortoise

Tortoise Threatened by Habitat Destruction, Fragmentation Across Southeast

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Nokuse Education, Inc. filed a formal notice today of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for denying Endangered Species Act protections to the eastern population of gopher tortoises. The decision left the beleaguered reptiles without lifesaving federal safeguards in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and most of Alabama.

The Service denied protections in 2022 despite originally finding in 2011 that the tortoise warranted protections — and despite its own projections of staggering range-wide population declines over the next 80 years. By 2100 nearly three-quarters of the remaining gopher tortoise populations will be lost, the Service projects.

“Without lifesaving Endangered Species Act protection for our gopher tortoises, urban sprawl will keep driving them ever closer to extinction,” said attorney Elise Bennett, Florida director at the Center. “That’s bad news for the tortoise and for hundreds of other southeastern species who rely on them to thrive, from the threatened indigo snake to the wild and weird gopher tortoise shell moth.”

Gopher tortoises have shovel-like front legs and strong, thick back legs that help them dig intricate burrows, which are relied upon by more than 360 other species. Gopher tortoise burrows are considered key features in the large, unfragmented upland ecosystems these communities of wild animals need to survive.

“We are committed to the conservation of the gopher tortoise, and to fulfill that commitment we must challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service’s flawed protection decision,” said Matthew Aresco, board member at Nokuse Education Inc. “Without stronger regulation and protection under the Endangered Species Act, gopher tortoise populations and their habitat will continue to decline.”

Gopher tortoises have already lost 97% of the longleaf pine savannas they historically inhabited and continue to be severely threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation driven by urbanization. This limits food availability and options for burrow sites, which exposes them to being crushed in their burrows during construction, run over by cars or senselessly attacked by people. Tortoises are also threatened by disease, invasive species like fire ants, and climate change.

Some states have implemented limited protections for gopher tortoises, but those have not stopped or reversed the species’ ongoing decline.

Florida requires that most tortoises be relocated out of the way of development, but the state does not protect tortoise habitat, meaning tortoises are being squeezed into increasingly smaller areas of available habitat. This reality, combined with booming development, has led to shortages of suitable places to put relocated tortoises.

Gopher tortoises in limited parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and western Alabama continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Those in eastern Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have been waiting for federal protection since 1982.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Nokuse Education, Inc. is a non-profit education and conservation organization and operates the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, an environmental education center in Walton County, Florida. The core mission of Nokuse Education, Inc. is to educate students and visitors on the importance of biodiversity, to promote sustainability, and to encourage conservation, preservation, and restoration of ecosystems. Nokuse is actively involved in gopher tortoise conservation efforts through habitat acquisition, restoration, and management.

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