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Bog Turtles - Teach New Lessons in Private Land Conservation

a picture of a biologist using an antenna and GPS technology monitoring endangered bog turtle populations.by Scott A. Smith
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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.

a picture showing a tiny bog turtle with its monitor firmly attached.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 owned.

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.

a picture of a bog turtle's head.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 shocking.

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 a picture of a bog turtle.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 watershed level.

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.

a photo of Canadian Burnet, commonly found in prime bog turtle habitats.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 own lands.
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