In 2006, the Nongame Conservation Section began a project to inventory sandhill habitats in the state. These habitats include longleaf pine-turkey oak ecosystems along the fall line and along larger streams in southern Georgia, as well as similar habitats associated with former barrier islands in inland coastal Georgia. The areas harbor a number of rare species including the southeastern pocket gopher, gopher tortoise, indigo snake, gopher frog, Bachman’s sparrow and striped newt.
The sandhills inventory had several objectives. The first was a map of sandhills and sandhills-associated habitats throughout the state. The second was a field-based assessment of ecological condition, rare (and other) species present, and potential for restoration. The third objective was an estimate of gopher tortoise populations on selected sites. All phases of the project are complete, although gopher tortoise population estimates are still being refined.
In all, nearly 100 public and private sandhills sites representing more than 12,000 acres of habitat were visited. Approximately two-thirds of these sites had active gopher tortoise populations accounting for approximately 2,600 tortoise burrows. Additionally, tortoise population estimates were obtained for 20 mainly state-owned conservation properties through a contract with the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway.
In 2009, DNR was awarded a $1 million competitive State Wildlife Grant to work with Alabama, Florida and South Carolina on a regional sandhill restoration effort. Using these federal funds, the project partners will assist with prescribed burning and other restoration efforts at high-priority sandhills sites throughout the four states. In Georgia, this effort should result in restoration on 15,000 acres of sandhill habitat.