By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - The gopher tortoise deserves protection in several states in the U.S. Southeast under the Endangered Species Act, but funding shortages could delay the listing for years, federal wildlife officials said on Tuesday.
There is sufficient scientific data to list the gopher tortoise as threatened in parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director for the Southeast.
"But we do not have the resources to pursue the listing process at this time," she told reporters during a conference call, noting the process can cost $300,000 or more.
The gopher tortoise, which is sandy brown in color and can grow to up to 15 pounds, will instead join a list of 251 other species designated as candidates for federal protection.
"There will be no land use changes for anyone as the result of this announcement," Dohner said. "The finding does not affect private or public landowners with new regulations."
It could be up to five years before the agency conducts studies and develops rules to give the tortoise federal protection in the Southeast, which could restrict how property owners use their land, officials said.
In the meantime, federal officials plan to work with private landowners on voluntary conservation efforts that could be partially funded by federal grants.
The gopher tortoise is already listed as threatened in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and western Alabama. The tortoise is threatened by habitat loss, herbicides used in forestry and other factors, federal officials said.
The tortoise lives in long-leaf pine forests and digs burrows up to 23 feet deep, which provide refuge for up to 360 other species, including indigo snakes, skunks and rabbits.
Wildlife officials could not provide specific estimates on Tuesday of the number of gopher tortoises in the southeastern United States, nor would they specify what land use restrictions might be imposed once the tortoise is protected.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)