Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pocket gopher

Ma0180 1M
Experts say pocket gopher near extinction:
Can the pocket gopher be saved? The rodent, a secretive animal that usually goes unnoticed underground, is near extinction in south Georgia, biologists say. They're starting a new push to save the creature ecologists say does important work providing habitat for other animals and aerating the soil.

The Southeastern pocket gopher was once common across Georgia's coastal plain but has disappeared from much of its former range, said Jim Ozier, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"It's been an animal that's been largely ignored and gone unnoticed over the years. It is a very secretive animal that has just disappeared quietly," Ozier said.

Named for their pocket-like cheeks, the gophers are vital to the ecosystem. The rodent rarely ventures above ground but is considered a "keystone species" because its elaborate network of underground burrows benefit other animals and plants, Ozier said. The gopher is found only in the coastal plains of Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

Biologists think the species has been devastated by loss of natural habitat -- longleaf pine savannas and naturally vegetated rolling sand hills. The gophers don't migrate and don't adapt very well to new habitat. "If they lose their habitat, they are pretty well gone," Ozier said.
Image courtesy of the eNature field guide.

A common theme in conservation is habitat destruction. These gophers (Geomys pinetis) are restricted to the coastal plains of Georgia, Alabama, and northern Florida. They like deep, well-drained, sandy soils. Those also happen to be the areas well-suited to citrus, though the species is most commonly found in longleaf pine/turkey oak sandhills which I'm going to guess are more useful for arboriculture.

In either case, the species is restricted in its dispersal and has very specific needs. It's the worst-case scenario for habitat loss, because its ability to adapt is limited more than most, and its lifestyle, tunneling through the dirt, is highly specialized.

This isn't a species that needs a breeding program. It needs habitat to be set aside with corridors connecting different populations. There's no other way. Doing that may require the government to buy land or to place restrictions on how some land is used. That'll require money and studies. It may require re-introductions of pocket gophers into habitat that's been rehabilitated for their use.

The discussions in Congress over the Endangered Species Act could remove the government's power to successfully recover the species. One change would prevent the government from protecting habitat not currently occupied by the species, which guarantees endless government intervention and makes it impossible for many species to recover.

I've discussed the need to protect endangered habitat frequently, starting back in January.