Gopher tortoises are big, dry, wrinkly reptiles that dig burrows underground in the parts of Georgia where the soil is sandy, down south and near the coast.
To the people who study them, they're "cute," "quite personable," and "just a great little critter."
To the 350-or-so other species of animals that use their burrows, they're property developers.
To businesses, they're a potential problem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting gopher tortoises under the Endangered Species Act, and that could mean red tape and additional costs.
Instead of fighting the potential listing, Georgia businesses are taking an unusual approach. They're working with wildlife agencies, private foundations, environmental groups – and even the Department of Defense – on a project to save the gopher tortoise. They hope to protect enough animals that federal regulation won't be necessary.
The biggest company involved in what's called the Georgia Gopher Tortoise Initiative is Georgia Power, the largest electric company in the state. With all its power plants, it's also a major landowner. And gopher tortoises live at some of those plants, including Plant Hatch, a nuclear facility in south Georgia.
"We're glad to have them here," says Georgia Power wildlife biologist Jim Ozier. "Gopher tortoises do very well right next door."
Ozier says beyond planning around the tortoises to make sure they're not affected by plant maintenance, Georgia Power is also restoring the gopher tortoises' native habitat, the longleaf pine forest that would have grown here naturally.
On a foggy morning he walks under high-voltage transmission lines running from Plant Hatch, searching for gopher tortoise burrows. Also on the hunt is Savannah McGuire, gopher tortoise crew leader with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and her team.
When they find one, McGuire crouches next to the burrow to snake a camera down into it. The camera streams video to a monitor up above ground, so she can see what's in the burrow.
"We'll stick it down the burrow and see if he's home," she says.
An image of a tortoise shell appears on the LCD screen.
"That's an adult gopher tortoise," she says, estimating it's about 40 years old and a foot wide.
Why the tortoises need saving
Once gopher tortoises make it to adulthood, they're like "a fixture on the landscape," says Kurt Buhlmann, a senior research scientist at University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab. "They're like a rock. They're going to be there."
But smaller ones get eaten by other animals. And there are fewer tortoises overall than there once were. Buhlmann says tortoise numbers have dropped partially because of habitat loss.
The longleaf pine forests where the tortoises thrive have given way to tree plantations, development and solar farms. The wildfire that keeps longleaf pine healthy has been suppressed. There was once about 90 million acres of longleaf pine in the Southeast, according the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Now there's more like three million acres.
The tortoises also have a legacy problem. During the Great Depression, people ate them. They were nicknamed "Hoover's chickens." Because gopher tortoises mature and breed slowly, they still haven't bounced back.
The Gopher Tortoise Initiative is working to address that by finding healthy gopher tortoise populations – whether they're on public land or private property – and protecting them where they are. Voluntarily, without federal regulation.
'Conservation without conflict'
The federal government, the state of Georgia and private foundations are raising $150 million for the Gopher Tortoise Initiative.
"I recently heard that our new Secretary [of the Interior] Zinke is all about conservation without conflict, and this is clearly an example of that," says Don Imm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife field supervisor in Georgia.
Imm says if the science indicates that gopher tortoises should be federally protected, then they will be. But, he says, "if you can do something to avoid the conflict, or even the need to list, that's a much better result."
It's better for businesses, too, says Doug Miell, a consultant with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
"There's always a perception that business and industry and conservation groups are at loggerheads, that we don't agree on anything," Miell says."This is a good example of where we can come together to demonstrate that, hey, we might be looking at it from different sides, but the outcome is the same."
Tracey Tuberville is an associate research scientist at UGA's Savannah River Ecology Lab (and happens to be married to UGA's Buhlmann; neither of them is involved in the Georgia Gopher Tortoise Initiative). She says it's great that the partners in the Initiative are working on restoring the land, but in some cases, it's better to go a step further and actively reintroduce rare species. That's what her work focuses on.
Still, she says what the Initiative is doing gives her hope for gopher tortoises.
"I actually am very optimistic that they are a species you can recover," she says. "Everybody has the same goal. Even if it's just to make sure they're not listed, in the end that means effective conservation for tortoises."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Endangered species can be bad for business. If you have a protected animal on your land, you are probably in for some red tape. To avoid that situation, a growing number of businesses are pitching in to help save animals. Molly Samuel of WABE looks at one of the largest such efforts in Georgia.
MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Gopher tortoises are big, dry, wrinkly reptiles. They live in the southern part of Georgia and near the coast, including at two nuclear power plants owned by the biggest electric company in the state, Georgia Power.
JIM OZIER: Gopher tours do very well right next door, and we - we're glad to have them.
SAMUEL: Wildlife biologist Jim Ozier works for Georgia Power. We're walking at nuclear plant Hatch looking for gopher tortoise burrows among spiky palmetto plants and little wildflowers.
OZIER: You know, they spend a lot of their time out foraging, but typically, they do spend the night in the burrow.
SAMUEL: So maybe he's not awake yet.
OZIER: (Laughter) We might wake him up.
SAMUEL: Ozier is out here counting gopher tortoises because Georgia Power wants to save them. It's helping to restore their habitat. He's working with Savannah McGuire with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. She is crouching next to a gopher tortoise hole.
SAVANNAH MCGUIRE: And so here's a big, adult, active burrow.
SAMUEL: She says the burrows can be as deep as 40 feet. McGuire snakes a camera down into the hole.
MCGUIRE: Pretty much a camera on a cord, so we're going to stick it down the burrow and see if he's home.
SAMUEL: Gopher tortoises may be in trouble. One issue has been habitat loss. They also have a legacy problem. During the Great Depression, people ate them. They were nicknamed Hoover's chickens, and because the tortoises breed so slowly, they still haven't bounced back. McGuire keeps pushing the camera down the burrow and eventually...
MCGUIRE: There he is. So we have a tortoise.
SAMUEL: We can see the tortoise's patterned shell on an LCD screen.
MCGUIRE: That's an adult gopher tortoise.
SAMUEL: How old would you say?
OZIER: I'd say easily 40 years old.
SAMUEL: Oh, wow.
SAMUEL: Gopher tortoises are protected by Georgia environmental law, but the federal Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing them under the Endangered Species Act, which is stronger than the state law. Ozier says Georgia Power and other businesses don't want that to happen.
OZIER: Everybody wants to see the economy of Georgia thriving, and if there's too many environmental regulations, there's a concern that economic growth will dwindle off.
SAMUEL: Don Imm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says private foundations and even the Department of Defense are all working together to try and save the gopher tortoise.
DON IMM: I think if you can do something to avoid the conflict, or even the need to list, that is a much better result.
SAMUEL: Better for the people doing business here and better for the tortoises. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Baxley, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.