by Scott A. Smith
blip, blip, blip, Blip, BLip, BLIp, BLIP, BLIP
The sound pulses through my headphones, first soft and then louder as I rotate
the directional antenna. “She’s over here,” I yell across the bog to my
colleagues as I wade through ankle-deep muck while fighting the clutching
foliage of the appropriately named rice cutgrass. Although aided by modern
technology, the black cables running between antenna, receiver and headphones
threaten to ensnare me, as one hand is burdened by the antenna while the other
fumbles with the receiver’s knobs.
Our quarry is a small, secretive, beautiful and quite rare bog turtle,
Glyptemys muhlenbergii, one of six that we captured in June and fitted with
an equally small transmitter. I have narrowed our search down to a
one-square-meter area, a small opening in the thick cutgrass where cold spring
waters gently meander through exposed mud and delicate stalks of spikerush. As I
pass the antenna back and forth over the area, a noticeable peak is detected at
one spot. Blip, blip. “Try here,” I point.
My companions today are Maricela Constantino of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service (USFWS) and the landowner who we’ll call “Greg” to protect his privacy
and the location of this state and federally threatened species. Greg is a big,
burly guy– a farmer and horticulturist. Both Maricela and Greg kneel down and
begin to probe the muck with their bare hands.
Greg, right arm submerged up to his elbow, yells, “Got her,” and proceeds to
extract a small and muddy turtle, legs flailing the air, narrow black antenna
trailing off the back of the shell. The turtle hisses at Greg, who just smiles;
I can tell he thinks this is pretty neat. While he doesn’t say as much, it is
evident by his demeanor and how he delicately holds the turtle that he has a
reverence for the animal and a certain amount of pride that his wetlands are its
home. An attitude that this species is dependent upon as more than 95 percent of
bog turtle-occupied wetlands in Maryland and throughout its range are privately
Good Things in Small Packages
The bog turtle is one of the smallest turtles on Earth; a full-grown adult’s
shell measures just over four inches in length. Its shell is a dark brown, and
in younger specimens each scute (or scale) of its top shell (or carapace)
appears sculpted, overlapping like a stack of progressively smaller dinner
plates. Some individuals also have a yellowish-ivory starburst pattern in each
scute. Those of older turtles are worn smooth as their constant burrowing in the
muck sands them down. But the characteristic that catches the eye is the
brightly colored neck patch, usually a reddish-orange but sometimes yellow or in
very rare instances, white.
The bog turtle’s diminutive size, beauty and rarity have unfortunately made it a
hot commodity within the international black market trade in pets, an added
curve ball to conservation efforts.
Studies by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the early 1990s showed a
marked decline in Maryland bog turtle populations when compared to similar
surveys conducted roughly 30 years ago. In 1977, 177 occupied bog turtle
wetlands were documented; by 1993, that number had fallen to 91. Between 1993
and 2004, about another five percent were lost.
Even more telling, from 1941 – when the first turtle was found along Grave Run
in Baltimore County – to today, bog turtles have been found at a total of 211
Maryland wetlands. However, only 98 of those sites still harbor turtle
populations, a 47 percent decline in 65 years. For a species with a suspected
life span of 50 to 60 years, this level of decline over a 35-year period was
This decline reflects changing agrarian economies and land ownership patterns;
most visibly the loss of farms and the resulting parcelization of the land into
smaller ownerships, many of which are subsequently developed. The lack of
livestock grazing has resulted in woody plant succession, accelerated by a
reduction in wetland
hydrology and an increase in invasive species. Conservation
efforts for the bog turtle on the scale of an individual wetland have focused on
vegetation management and restoring hydrology; on a population or metapopulation
(a group of subpopulations each isolated in a patch of habitat) scale, efforts
have focused on maintaining and restoring landscape linkages, such as at the
Maricela, my collaborator in this study, pulls out a global positioning system
(GPS) unit and proceeds to record the latitude and longitude for our capture.
She also records information about the turtle’s behavior, in this case “buried
in mud,” as well as notes about the surrounding vegetation and hydrology. We
will take the accumulated locations for each turtle and develop a map of its
home range and hibernation sites, then overlay them on aerial photos and maps of
the area noting where springs, streams and forests occur. This will give us a
better idea of core activity areas for all the turtles, along with the most
sensitive and critical areas within Greg’s property for bog turtles.
The Landowner Connection
Greg has been the perfect private land cooperator: An active and enthusiastic
participant in our project, he radio tracks the turtles twice per week, placing
flags where he finds them and filling out data sheets. When we arrive for our
weekly visits, he helps us relocate them. Greg knows the individual turtles
better than Maricela or I; he has their frequencies and locations memorized.
But Greg’s assistance only begins here. He has allowed DNR and USFWS to remove
invasive woody vegetation like red maples and multiflora rose from the boggy
wetlands on his Piedmont farm. This was done to expand potential turtle nesting
habitat and restore adequate bog hydrology. Wetlands get “wetter” when trees and
shrubs are removed because when present they are very efficient at transpiring
water to the atmosphere, thus acting as a drying agent.
Greg has also allowed us to install livestock fences to create a number of
paddocks, each with different grazing management prescriptions. This aids in
maintaining the early successional nature of the bog while limiting potential
damage to turtles by his livestock. He provided his own farm equipment and labor
to help us accomplish a number of tasks, including moving and burning brush
piles. And observing the extent of the turtle’s travels has given him a greater
appreciation for how his own actions on the farm could potentially affect them.
The study on Greg’s farm will help us better understand how bog turtles use
restored wetland habitat. We plan to conduct similar studies over the next few
years on additional sites as we restore them.
This project is part of a much larger bog turtle management and restoration
strategy that DNR, USFWS and a number of other partners are working on
throughout the species range, which includes 12 East Coast states from New York
to Georgia. One important partner, Environmental Defense, a private non-profit
conservation organization, has successfully persuaded the federal government to
provide monetary incentives to private landowners for bog turtle habitat
management through Farm Bill programs.
On the state level, the USFWS has provided DNR with a Landowner Incentive
Program (LIP) grant to aid in habitat management on private lands for bog
turtles and other species of greatest conservation need. Restoring bog turtle
habitat also helps other sensitive species found in the same wetlands, such as
the rare and declining Baltimore checkerspot butterfly and Canada burnet, a
state-threatened plant. The ultimate success of our efforts will be measured by
how many private landowners are empowered to be the primary stewards of their
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