4.8 Conservation Efforts

4.8 Conservation Efforts

4.8.1 Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

Endangered Species Act (ESA)
Since the listing of the eastern indigo snake in 1978, the Service has entered into many formal and informal consultations with other Federal agencies pursuant to section 7(a)(2) of the ESA. Examples include interagency consultations on proposed housing developments, golf courses, and roads that involve wetland fill, timber harvest activities, military activities, and other activities within the current and historic range of the species. Federal agencies involved in these consultations with the Service have included the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Defense and Army Corps of Engineers. These consultations resulted in measures to avoid or reduce impacts to eastern indigo snakes, including upland habitat acquisition and preservation by Federal agencies. In addition, section 7(a)(1) of the ESA requires that Federal agencies use their authorities to further the conservation of listed species.

Under section 10(a)(1), permits may also be issued to non-federal entities. Section 10(a)(1)(A) permits may be issued for scientific purposes or for other purposes that enhance the survival and recovery of the species (e.g. captive propagation, see Conservation Efforts section 4.8). For development projects that do not have a federal nexus (addressed under Section 7 of the ESA), but may cause incidental take of the eastern indigo snake, under section 10(a)(1)(B), an incidental take permit may be issued provided the applicant submits a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that specifies the impact of the taking, minimization and mitigation measures, alternatives to the taking, adequate funding for the plan, and that the taking will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of the survival and recovery of the species in the wild. HCPs for eastern indigo snakes have been developed for several types of projects such as commercial and residential development, and timber and mining operations. There also is some interest in the development of eastern indigo snake HCPs for solar and agricultural developments. HCPs provide the applicant legal coverage under the ESA should take occur of a listed species, however the decision to develop an HCP is voluntary and there are likely developments impacting eastern indigo snakes that are unaccounted for.

State Protections
Each state within the historical range of the eastern indigo snake provides some protection for the species. In Alabama, the eastern indigo snake is listed as endangered and is a nongame species protected by regulation (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) 2018); in Florida and Georgia it is listed as threatened (FWC 2017, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) 2018), and in Mississippi as endangered (Mississippi Natural Heritage Program 2015). The protections provided by each state vary. However, most state laws focus on prohibitions against taking eastern indigo snakes from the wild and possessing, killing, exporting, or selling them, although Georgia regulations protect the habitat of listed species on public land (GDNR 2018).

Other Considerations
There are few existing regulatory mechanisms for the protection of the upland habitats where eastern indigo snakes spend much of their lives. The National Forest Management Act requires the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) to manage habitats to provide the ecological conditions that contribute to the conservation of species. Development and implementation of additional provisions that would contribute to the conservation of specific species are included in Forest Management Plans for individual states. Forests within the range of the eastern indigo snake include provisions for prescribed burning and habitat management that benefit the eastern indigo snake. However, because multiple-use is the guiding principal on most public land, protection of the eastern indigo snake may be one of many management goals including timber production, and military and recreational use.

Section 404 of the Clean Water Act is the primary Federal law that has the potential to provide some protection for the wetland sites on private land which are occupied seasonally by eastern indigo snakes. The success of protecting eastern indigo habitat by implementing this regulation is unknown.

4.8.2 Federal Lands Agency Conservation Measures

Under section 7(a)(1) of the ESA Federal agencies are required to use their authorities to further the conservation of listed species. The Service, the Forest Service and the Department of Defense all play important roles in recovery efforts for the eastern indigo snake.

Fish and Wildlife Service (Service)
Because most species spend at least part of their lifecycle on non-federal lands, the Service implements conservation tools and programs that aid in the conservation of listed and at-risk species, including the eastern indigo snake, on non-federal lands. The Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund (aka. Section 6 Grants) is a tool that provides grants to states to participate in a wide array conservation projects for listed species and species identified in State Wildlife Action Plans, which include the eastern indigo snake. These grants are State Wildlife Conservation Grants, Recovery Land Acquisition Grants, Habitat Conservation Planning Assistance and Land Acquisition Grants. Additionally conservation programs such as the Safe Harbor Program and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program provide resources and financial assistance to private landowners to further conserve wildlife and their habitat. To date more than 100 Partners for Fish and Wildlife Project have been implemented across Alabama, Florida and Georgia that potentially benefit the eastern indigo snake.

Several National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) (e.g. Okefenokee NWR, Merritt Island NWR, Chassahowitzka NWR) provide important habitat for eastern indigo snake populations. Much of the prescribed burning and mechanical upland habitat restoration conducted NWRs have benefited the eastern indigo snake and made significant contributions to the survival and recovery of the species. Habitat improvements, including ecosystem restoration, enhancement, and protection, also support eastern indigo snake recovery.

Forest Service
National Forests in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi within the range of the eastern indigo snake have active prescribed burning programs for longleaf pine. This habitat management supports recovery efforts for the species. A multi-agency effort is occurring on the Conecuh National Forest to repatriate the eastern indigo snake to southern Alabama, as discussed below. The Forest Service has coordinated on this project with ADCNR, GDNR, Auburn University, The Orianne Society, Zoo Atlanta, Fort Stewart Military Reservation, and the Service (ADCNR 2014).

Department of Defense
As part of implementation of the Sikes Act Improvement Act (1997), the Secretaries of the military departments are required to prepare and implement Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans (INRMP) for each military installation in the United States. Those written for installations where the eastern indigo snake occurs include specific guidelines for conservation of the species. Eastern indigo snakes are known from at least seven military installations; 3 in Florida (Avon Park Air Force Range, Camp Blanding Military Reservation and Eglin Air Force Base [historical]) and 4 in Georgia (Fort Stewart Military Reservation, Kings Bay Navy Base, Moody Air Force Base [historical], and Townsend Bombing Range). An active prescribed burning program is implemented on these military installations to manage for longleaf pine ecosystems which benefits conservation and recovery of the eastern indigo snake. Many installations include specific eastern indigo snake habitat and population management prescriptions and goals within their INRMPs. In southeastern Georgia, research and management efforts have been on-going at the Fort Stewart Military Reservation where several populations of eastern indigo snakes are protected. In addition, ongoing environmental awareness training programs for soldiers include instruction on identification and protection of eastern indigo snakes. The Department of Defense’s (DoD) Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program, also offers opportunities to expand land conservation beyond installation boundaries to improve military training flexibility by defending against incompatible development and reducing regulatory restrictions that inhibit military activities. Working through landscape partnerships, the DoD REPI program has helped protect additional eastern indigo snake habitat in Georgia and Florida.

4.8.3 State Wildlife Agency Conservation Measures

Alabama, Florida, and Georgia wildlife agencies, often in coordination with the Service, have conducted surveys, longleaf pine ecosystem restoration projects, land acquisition, prescribed burning, and other activities to benefit the recovery of the eastern indigo snake on state and private lands. Specifically, GDNR is conducting annual mark-recapture monitoring across the eastern indigo snake range in Georgia. The program to repatriate eastern indigo snakes to Alabama and Florida (discussed below) was initiated by the ADCNR and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and supported by GDNR. The work of GDNR nongame staff resulted in the conversion in 2012 of an annual rattlesnake “roundup”, within the range of the eastern indigo snake, to a snake-friendly and education-oriented “festival” event with a focus on environmental education. This roundup, where, historically, rattlesnakes were ultimately killed (there is one remaining roundup within the range of the eastern indigo snake in Whigham, GA (Adkins 2017)), has changed to a festival where snakes of many species, including eastern indigo snakes, are displayed and information related to snake ecology and conservation is disseminated.

Initial efforts to create an eastern indigo snake habitat model for the state of Florida were made by Cox and Kautz (2000). The FWC has built on that effort by creating a revised potential habitat map for this species in Florida based on soil type, habitat fragment size, and other habitat characteristics as well as revising the Florida GAP (Gap Analysis Project) analysis of gopher tortoise habitat, since eastern indigo snakes rely on gopher tortoise burrows when available (Bock and Enge 2014). GDNR has put together a similar habitat model for the eastern indigo snake in Georgia (Elliott 2009). A team of federal, state and other partners led by the Georgia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Georgia has developed a draft habitat suitability model for gopher tortoises across its range (Crawford and Maerz, 2017, entire). This gopher tortoise suitability map helps to highlight potential areas for eastern indigo snake suitability in the northern portion of its range. The data developed through these projects provide useful information on sites likely to support eastern indigo snake populations.

The state of Florida has protected more than 2.4 million ac (1.2 million ha) through its Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever programs (FDEP 2016). In 1998, Florida voters amended the state constitution by ratifying a constitutional amendment that reauthorized bonds for land acquisition. The Florida Forever Act, implemented in 2000, reinforced Florida’s commitment to acquire and conserve natural and cultural habitats and better manage these lands. This legislation benefits the recovery of the eastern indigo snake. In section 5.5 of this report we estimate the amount of occupied eastern indigo snake habitat that occurs on protected lands.

In 2012, the FWC updated their Gopher Tortoise Management Plan for the state of Florida (FWC 2012). The overarching conservation goal of this management plan is no net loss of gopher tortoises from the time of plan approval in 2012 through 2022. Objectives of the plan include: minimizing the loss of gopher tortoises; increasing and improving gopher tortoise habitat; enhancing and restoring gopher tortoise populations where the species no longer occurs or has been severely depleted on protected, suitable lands; and maintaining the gopher tortoise’s function as a keystone species. Eastern indigo snakes in Florida should benefit from these actions taken on behalf of the gopher tortoise. In addition, the plan proposes gopher tortoise burrow commensal conservation actions, which if implemented, would support conservation and recovery of the eastern indigo snake.

4.8.4 Conservation Efforts by Private Organizations and Multi-organizational Cooperation

The Orianne Society
The Orianne Society (Orianne) is a non-profit wildlife conservation organization founded in 2008 to help conserve the eastern indigo snake through research, environmental education, land acquisition, and habitat management. At their field preserve (Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve), along the Ocmulgee River in Telfair County, Georgia, eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise studies are on-going, including population monitoring. Habitat management activities conducted by Orianne place an emphasis on the use of prescribed fire to maintain or restore native longleaf pine–wiregrass sandhill communities.

In coordination with State and Federal agencies, Orianne has studied the distribution of the eastern indigo snake (Enge et al. 2013) and tested eastern indigo snake survey methods including the use of a specially-trained wildlife detector dog (Stevenson et al. 2010b). Orianne has also conducted research on the diet, nutrition (Stevenson et al. 2010b, Knafo et al. 2016), and survival and population growth (Hyslop et al. 2011). Current research efforts address eastern indigo snake thermal ecology, spatial ecology, home range size and habitat use and population viability in south-central Florida (Bauder et al. 2016a, b, Bauder et al. 2018, entire, Bauder 2018), conservation genetics (both in south Florida and in Georgia) (Spear 2013, Folt et al. 2019), and factors influencing occupancy and detection rates in the Altamaha River Drainage of southern Georgia. The goal of the latter study is to determine population trends in the Altamaha drainage, a stronghold for the eastern indigo snake. Orianne continues to take a leading role in supporting eastern indigo snake conservation and recovery. Many more publications will be forthcoming from projects in which they are participating.

The Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC)
The OCIC is located near Eustis, Florida. The OCIC coordinates the species survival plan (SSP), maintains the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) eastern indigo snake regional studbook and is the premier center for captive propagation of eastern indigo snakes. The OCIC propagates eastern indigo snakes for both the SSP and the species Recovery Plan’s repatriation projects. The OCIC is a modern breeding facility with state-of-the-art health care center, herpetarium, outdoor enclosures and quarantine. The OCIC was built and first launched by Orianne, but in 2013 operations were transferred to the Central Florida Zoo. The OCIC continues to work in partnership with Orianne and many other federal, state, and private partners to support the repatriation projects. The OCIC currently co-chairs with Orianne the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Committee (EISRC), which provides guidance on the captive propagation and repatriation program.

Eastern Indigo Snake Captive Propagation and Repatriation Program

Natural recolonization of eastern indigo snakes into portions of their former range would be difficult despite their ability to move relatively long distances. Exposure to negative influencing factors inherent in fragmented habitats (e.g. road mortality, predation, intentional human persecution etc.) make natural modes of population expansion challenging. Therefore, as part of the species Recovery Plan (USFWS 1982), the development and implementation of a scientifically-designed repatriation program for eastern indigo snakes is underway. Repatriation sites are selected by the EISRC based on specific site criteria.

In 2010, in order to meet the goals of the Eastern Indigo Snake Captive Propagation and Reintroduction Plan, the OCIC, was purchased by Orianne. This facility was expanded upon to become the premier captive propagation center for the eastern indigo snake reintroduction project. In 2014, the Orianne Society partnered with the Central Florida Zoo to operate and manage the OCIC. The Central Florida Zoo has financially supported the OCIC from 2014 to current, but is expanding partnerships and seeking additional support to achieve the recovery program objectives. Partners include the States of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, Federal Agencies, Universities, Non-profits, Zoos and private consultants.

The OCIC currently houses over 200 eastern indigo snakes to assist with the repatriation of the species. There are two active repatriation sites; the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama, initiated in 2010 with 157 snakes released since summer 2018, and the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve in the central Florida Panhandle with 32 snakes released since 2017. The goal is to release approximately 300 snakes at each site over the next 10+ years (about 30 snakes each year at each site for 10 years), with the possibility of adding new sites in Florida. In order to reach this goal, the OCIC continues to grow its captive stock to meet genetic diversity goals and works with other partners, such as Welaka National Fish Hatchery, Zoo Atlanta and Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, to increase captive stock capacity.

Gopher Tortoise Conservation
In recent years many public and private partners have joined together in an effort to better understand the status of the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range (in AL, FL, GA and SC) where it is considered a candidate for federal protection under the ESA. In 2008, a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA 2012) for the gopher tortoise was developed as a cooperative effort among state, federal, non-governmental and private organizations to proactively implement conservation measures for the species. Partners are implementing critical conservation to protect the species from declining to a level where federal protection under the ESA is warranted. This public-private partnership is focused on land protection and management strategies that will permanently protect gopher tortoise populations across the eastern portion of its range. Gopher tortoise populations are also being restored and augmented (e.g. Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle of Florida) through translocation and captive propagation programs. Land protection, via a multi-partnership effort (The Nature Conservancy, Orianne, the Conservation Fund, the state of Georgia and others) to protect the tortoise in Georgia, has been accelerated as part of Georgia’s gopher tortoise conservation initiative which has a goal to permanently protect 65 gopher tortoise populations. Many of the newly protected lands have significant conservation value for the eastern indigo snake. On-going efforts to conserve the gopher tortoise will help conserve the longleaf pine ecosystem and have lasting conservation benefits to hundreds of species, including the eastern indigo snake across much of its range.

America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative
This collaborative effort among many public and private sector partners actively supports range-wide efforts to restore and conserve longleaf pine ecosystems, with a goal to increase longleaf from 3.4 to 8.0 million ac (ALRI 2018). These efforts are focused within 16 “significant landscapes.” Within these significant landscapes Local Implementation Teams (LITs) are leading conservation efforts by coordinating partners, developing priorities, and fundraising to implement on-the-ground conservation. Five LITs are working within the range of the eastern indigo snake, the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership, Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance, Fort Stewart/Altamaha Longleaf Pine Restoration Partnership, Okefenokee-Osceola Partnership and the Ocala Local Implementation Team. Each of these LITs has components of their conservation plans that support eastern indigo snake recovery. For example, both the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership and Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance help restore longleaf habitat and support the ongoing eastern indigo snake repatriation efforts at Conecuh National Forest and the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, respectively. The other LITs play important roles in habitat restoration, management and monitoring.

Outreach and Education
Improving the public attitude and behavior towards the eastern indigo snake is a priority recovery action. Direct mortality by humans, especially by vehicular strikes, is a significant factor affecting to eastern indigo snakes. Many partners across the species’ range are working to educate the public and improve public attitude by hosting events, giving presentations and inviting the public to learn about the species and its habitat in situ. The state wildlife agencies, federal agencies, non-profits (e.g. Orianne and OCIC), zoos and other partnerships (e.g. Gopher Tortoise Council Upland Snake Conservation Initiative) play important roles in public education and outreach.