BRISTOL, FLA. ­­­­–– With a hiss and flick of her glossy tail, Gale slithered into a gopher tortoise burrow with no hesitation and little regard for the paparazzi documenting the significant moment.

Lora Smith, herpetologist, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center of Georgia, released Gale into her new home in a gopher tortoise hole at The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicloa Bluffs & Ravines Preserve on July 17. Gale was one of 12 endangered indigo snakes reintroduced into the habitat this week. Photo by Kimberly Blair.

It was clear the indigo snake was anxious to explore her new home, surrounded by wire grass and longleaf pines on a slope in The Nature Conservancy’s 6,295-acre Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.

After being absent from the ecosystem since the early 1980s, Gale and six more federally threatened eastern indigo snakes were the first to be reintroduced to the Preserve on July 17. Five more were released days later, marking a major milestone in a massive 30-year, long leaf pine habitat restoration project supported by multiple partners, including Gulf Power and Southern Company.

David Printiss, The Nature Conservancy North Florida program manager, poses with one of the eastern indigo snakes during a photo session. The king of snakes are docile around humans but will devour a diamondback rattlesnake. Photo by Tim Donovan, FWC.

David Printiss, The Nature Conservancy’s North Florida program manager, pointed out that Gulf Power was one of the first partners to join the effort to accelerate the longleaf pine reforestation and ground cover restoration with $385,000 in grants from 1999 to 2005.

“This shows how particularly generous Gulf Power is because we’re just on the border of their service area,” Printiss said. “But the company was so fond of our longleaf pine work, they stretched that extra mile. And when Southern Company supported the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Longleaf Pine Legacy initiative, Gulf Power contributed to that. We could not have done the work without this support.”

Since 2014, Gulf Power has leveraged contributions with its parent company Southern Company in partnership with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other public and private donors to provide $1.26 million in Longleaf Stewardship Funds to The Nature Conservancy for conservation efforts in the Preserve and on lands that stretch from Bay County east through the Apalachicola River region.

Gulf Power employees also dedicated 700 hours during volunteer workdays to plant trees and native grasses and remove invasive species.

This landscape of wire grass and longleaf pines took decades to restore after the land was used for the timber industry. Gulf Power began supporting restoration in 1999. Photo by Kimberly Blair.

“This is a true success story that highlights our promise to environmental stewardship,” said Kimberly Blair, Gulf Power spokesperson. “The company knows that to successfully restore the iconic southern longleaf pine ecosystem in Northwest Florida and throughout the Southeast, and to help the recovery of the endangered and threatened species that depend on it, we must take a landscape approach. We also know this is an area that our customers use.”

Gulf Power is involved in longleaf pine restoration on more than 1.3 million acres across its service area including its own company-owned lands, the Rainwater Perdido River Nature Preserve and Blackwater River State Forest and Eglin Air Force Base.

“This landscape focus maximizes Gulf Power’s impact and furthers our goal to support species and habitat recovery,” Blair said. “It also ensures the natural resources are here for future generations.”

A key piece

It’s clear by the way the indigos tolerated the photo and video sessions, they are no threat to humans. “It’s very charismatic,” Printiss said. “It’s a beautiful, docile animal, and why all the science based organizations are supporting it. They understand the ecological niche of this species. And it’s a target recovery species of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Yet, measuring up to 9 feet long, they are an apex predator that’s just as important to the longleaf pine ecosystem as sharks are to the ocean or timber wolves are to the Rocky Mountains. Meet Sally.

“It is the king of the snakes,” Printiss said. “It eats small mammals and reptiles. It can take down rattlesnakes, water moccasins and copperheads. Without this apex predator, things get out of whack. Gray and red rat snakes are getting over abundant, and they prey on song birds. Indigo snakes keep the animal population in check.”

Largely eliminated from northern Florida due to the loss and the fragmentation of their longleaf pine habitat from development, the reintroduction of the indigo snake is viewed as a key step toward species recovery in the region. They depend on the gopher tortoise burrows for shelter and refuge, Printiss said.

The reintroduction of indigos is a major conservation success story. Thirty more annually be released over the next 10 years. Photo by Kimberly Blair.

The ones being released in the Preserve were bred and raised at the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. Some 30 indigos a year are expected to be released into the preserve during the next 10 years. They’ll be closely monitored to see if they’re reproducing and thriving.

Other partners in the indigo reintroduction include: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Auburn University; Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center; National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida.

Temperince Morgan, Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy in Florida, said the eastern indigo snake reintroduction “is a testament to the decades-long effort by Conservancy staff, and the teamwork of an incredible group of partners in the implementation of innovative restoration methods that resulted in healthy, restored longleaf pine landscape.”

Read more about Gulf Power’s environmental stewardship in “Our Promise”.