Good for tortoises at Okefenokee, good for development

By David Pendered

Jan. 25 – The end of potential federal protection for the gopher tortoise did not escape the attention of the company that wants to extract valuable minerals from land near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Until Oct, 11, 2022 the gopher tortoise had been a candidate for listing as a federally protected endangered species. That date is when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used the word “robust” to describe the gopher tortoise’s population in Georgia and surrounding states. Following a few additional steps, the gopher tortoise – Georgia’s state reptile – is no longer eligible for listing as an endangered species. The animal is state-listed as threatened, by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Twin Pines Minerals, LLC noted the shift in the tortoise’s federal status in an appendix in its revised request for permits to mine outside the swamp’s southeastern edge. See page 9 of the updated documents, dated Nov. 28, 2022.

Georgia River Network Executive Director Rena Ann Peck stands next to a burrow of a gopher tortoise at the Twin Pines site. (Credit: Georgia River Network)

The company has reported finding 118 burrows dug by gopher tortoises, tunnels that are either active or inactive. Researchers used a camera, flashlight or mirrors to check burrows to determine if they were occupied, according to the company’s report of the exam cited in  Appendix C:

  • “[W]e observed gopher tortoises in 23 adult-sized burrows, 11 subadult-sized burrows, and in 1 juvenile- sized burrow. For another 4 active adult-sized burrows, 11 active subadult-sized burrows, and 2 active juvenile burrows, we could not determine conclusively whether or not the burrow was in fact occupied by a tortoise.”

The FWS action is a win for the state’s business leadership, and tortoise advocates, who have worked to conserve the gopher tortoise’s habitat from human disturbance. Along with protecting the tortoises, the burrows they dig provide accommodations for many other species.

The FWS action also has implications for the permits Twin Pines is requesting. The company needs state authorization to proceed with a demonstration mine outside the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.

A sagittaria plant grows in the proposed mining site. (Credit: Georgia River Network)

On one hand, the gopher tortoise population is now deemed “robust.” That represents a successful conservation campaign.

On the other, the gopher tortoise population may have been removed from any meaningful role in the permitting process for the proposed demonstration mine outside the Okefenokee Swamp.

This situation could prevent a repeat of a situation in 2015. Gopher tortoises were found to reside on a site near Savannah where Volvo was considering developing a $500 million manufacturing plant, its first in the U.S. South Carolina contended the animal’s presence could delay the site’s environmental permitting. Volvo selected the site South Carolina had offered, near Charleston.

Georgia’s business community responded to the lost economic opportunity.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce joined the fledgling Georgia Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative. The initiative gained further support from the state business leaders and environmental advocates.

The initiative is hosted by the Georgia Conservancy, itself an organization founded in 1967 to conserve land. The conservancy’s board now is comprised of representatives of large corporations, including Southern Co., Georgia Power, KIA Georgia and The Home Depot, among others.

The conservancy’s statement on the FWS decision describes the efforts of the gopher tortoise initiative and observes:

  • “Importantly, these years of efforts have precluded the need of the federal government to list the gopher tortoise as endangered under the Endangered Species Act – providing assurances for a more compatible economic environment for Georgia’s business community.”
A tiger lily plant grows in the proposed mining site. (Credit: Georgia River Network)
The proposal to mine sand near the Okefenokee Swamp now rests in the hands of Georgia environmental officials. (Credit: Twin Pines Minerals via GaDNR)
The population of gopher tortoises has become so ‘robust’ in Georgia and surrounding states it no longer is eligible for listing as a federally protected endangered species. (Credit: Craig O’Neil via