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David Rainer: Shelton-Nix a repeat USFWS award-winner

The contribution Ericha Shelton-Nix continues to make to Alabama’s nongame wildlife populations has been recognized for the second year in a row by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Shelton-Nix, a biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, was among the recipients in the Southeast Region to receive the 2021-2022 Regional Director’s Honor Award for Private Landowners (Group). The award announcement reads: “Southeast Forest Landowner Conservation partner awards acknowledge your significant contribution and willingness to work with the Service toward the conservation of natural resources in the Southeast.”

Shelton-Nix received the same recognition for 2020-2021 for her work with Alabama’s unique Red Hills Salamander and its habitat in Monroe County. She was part of the team that helped with the land acquisition that became the Red Hills Wildlife Management Area.

This year’s award was for her work with gopher tortoise research and conservation in southeast Alabama, which included starting the Alabama Tortoise Alliance (ALTA), a partnership with private landowners, state and federal agencies, local governments, organizations and businesses to manage and conserve gopher tortoise populations and habitat. Other members of the ALTA group were recognized by USFWS, including Ray Metzler with the Alabama Forestry Commission.

“I started the Alabama Tortoise Alliance, and we met every six months,” Shelton-Nix said. “We had 30 to 50 people coming together from across the state to collaborate for gopher tortoise conservation. The initiative was that everybody was doing something, but nobody knew what the other person was doing for gopher tortoises. So, the whole point was to collaborate and compile information that was considered as good science and then submit that information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so it could be used in the listings decisions.”

Chuck Sykes, WFF Director, applauded the recognition Shelton-Nix received from the USFWS.

“Ericha is a leader in gopher tortoise advocacy for our agency,” Sykes said. “Her work with our federal partners, nongovernmental organizations, private landowners as well as industry sets a shining example of how collaboration moves the needle in wildlife and ecosystem conservation.”

The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species, impacting about 365 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates in the sandy-soil habitat across their southeastern range.

In August 2022, juvenile gopher tortoises were released in Geneva State Forest Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Covington County to facilitate research on the animals’ range and movement patterns. Transmitters were attached to numerous tortoises, and the telemetry work to track those animals started June 1. Jeff Goessling, an assistant professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and his students will conduct the telemetry research.

“We’re ready to see where those tortoises dispersed,” Shelton-Nix said. “We have 90 tortoises with transmitters, both head-starts (hatchling tortoises reared in captivity to maximize growth rates) and adults. The larger pen has been removed, and we want to see if the animals are staying there or if they’re dispersing farther out. We consolidated those tortoises in the 40-acre pen to create a population that would be on a trajectory to become viable in the future, that would have sufficient density to propagate.

“We fenced that area in Geneva WMA to hopefully create site fidelity. Otherwise, they just want to return to where they came from. Now that we have taken down the fence, we’re going to see if they are going to stay put or if they’re going to move.”

The head-starts were transferred using methods called soft release and hard release. The soft release tortoises were put in 1-acre pens, while the hard release tortoises were released with no impediments to movement. The head-starts were 1- and 2-year-olds that were the size of a 7-year-old tortoise in the wild.

“The predation rate is very high in the egg stage,” Shelton-Nix said. “When they are very small, the predation is still high, so we grew them to a bigger size with heat and food (grass, forbs, legumes, berries and flowers) to increase survival rates.

“We’re looking now at what their dispersion looks like. We’re going to see if the hard release tortoises stayed put or whether they meandered off compared to the soft release sites, where those tortoises can’t go very far.”

Shelton-Nix said aging adult tortoises is difficult because their habitat is deep sandy soil in coastal planes with pine forests, preferably longleaf, with an open canopy.

“We age adults as 20-plus years,” she said. “It’s hard to determine the age of the adults. We count the rings on the plastron, but this is an animal that lives in sand. They are constantly rubbing their bellies, their plastrons, and sand wears away the rings, so we just say 20-plus.”

Shelton-Nix said the most suitable gopher tortoise habitat occurs in the sandy soils in the counties that border Florida. She said as you move north to Montgomery and Pike counties, the sandy soils are more dissected, and the tortoises usually will be found only on ridges.

Because the tortoise habitat is mainly in private ownership, it is crucial to expand outreach and education. Gopher tortoises are state protected in all Alabama counties except for Mobile, Washington and Choctaw counties, which are under federal protection.

“We don’t own a lot of the wildlife habitat,” Shelton-Nix said. “Ninety-six percent of the gopher tortoise habitat is in private ownership. That’s why ALTA was started. We helped put on landowner events to talk to people to see if they would allow us access to survey their properties. We do not have a lot of data on the status of gopher tortoises in Alabama. So, we started building relationships with landowners. When you start with practically zero data and you end up with a little, that’s a success. The question is whether it was enough.

“The goal of ALTA was to collaborate, share information and work together as partners so that we could provide good science on the status of the species in Alabama to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so they can make decisions based on science. When you have no science, they still have to make a decision, and a species can look rare when you have no data.”

Although Shelton-Nix received recognition in a ceremony at the USFWS office in Atlanta, she said the gopher tortoise work was a team effort.

“I was just part of a big team,” she said. “The theme is teamwork and collaboration, and I’m happy to be a part of the great team in Alabama.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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