Nearly 20 percent of Mobile County, Alabama’s population lives below the poverty level. Low incomes have created a demand for small, affordable house lots, fragmenting the longleaf pine habitat essential to the threatened gopher tortoise. Much of the undeveloped habitat is in poor condition because of inadequate management.
Afraid it would run afoul of the Endangered Species Act, Mobile County stopped issuing building permits in 1999 for areas with tortoise populations. Besides being controversial among landowners and developers, it quickly became apparent that a moratorium by itself would not improve gopher tortoise survival.
The Mobile Area Water and Sewage System (MAWSS) proposed that the County establish a “conservation bank” on properties around its reservoir. The “bank” is a large piece of property that can be managed more effectively than a smaller number of unconnected tracts. Landowners and developers who had tortoise habitat on their property could purchase credits to fund management at the “bank” and to continue building. The MAWSS could also use credits to add more land to the bank, expanding its quality habitat that more than makes up for land lost to development.
In 2001, about 220 acres of longleaf pine habitat became the gopher tortoise conservation bank. Today, more than 55 bank credits have been sold for $3,500 per credit. As the bank’s owner, MAWSS ﬁnances tortoise conservation on its lands while helping to avoid a costly endangered species controversy.
Environmental Defense assisted in designing the conservation bank and drafting its habitat conservation plan. The USDI Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) works with MAWSS to manage the bank and monitor the tortoise population. The University of South Alabama also monitors the bank, while a science advisory board assists with the bank’s operation.