Bog turtles…the canaries in the coal mine

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS
A young bog turtle found during a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

A young bog turtle found during a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

It’s a warm summer day. I’m standing in a tall, wet, grassy field with the sound of bullfrogs and water splashing as I pull my boot from the muck that swallowed it. After hours of walking around in a swamp under the hot sun, I finally found what I came looking for: a tiny 4-inch-long turtle.

This is New York’s smallest turtle species, the bog turtle.

There are only 40 to 60 wetlands that support bog turtles in New York, most of which lie within the southeastern portion of the state. While that might seem like a lot, it’s not. The bog turtle is protected under law as “endangered” by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Bog turtle numbers have dwindled as their wetland habitat has been destructed for commercial, residential and road development. Sometimes, wetlands are drained for farmland, or they grow into mature woods or become overgrown with invasive plants like purple loosestrife and common reed.

Bog turtles don’t choose just any wetland for their habitat. Suitable habitat is usually described as spring-fed meadow wetlands or open-canopy fens that may have fairly mucky soil with limestone underneath, and channels interspersed, called rivulets. These channels contain 1-3 inches of water that meander through small islands of sedge. It takes biologists hours upon hours to carefully examine these landscapes for the elusive bog turtle.

A forested wetland that has been destroyed to build a housing development. Credit: Lara Cerri

What was once a forested wetland has been converted to a housing development. Credit: Lara Cerri

Our agency, guided by a recovery plan, leads efforts to recover this species within its northern population range. The plan includes goals and objectives that partners will achieve to eventually “delist” this species over time, meaning bog turtle populations will be secure enough that state or federal protection is no longer needed.

Our office works with federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, universities, private consulting firms and private landowners in two main areas of New York: the Prairie Peninsula-Lake Plains area (counties bordering the southern portion of Lake Ontario) and the Hudson-Housatonic area (counties that are east of the Hudson River).

A primary goal of the recovery plan is to restore or enhance bog turtle habitat on private, state and federal land. This makes collaboration among all of our partners essential to accomplish efforts like site visits, health assessments, annual meetings and various restoration projects.

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Some may ask, why spend all this time and effort on a turtle?

For me, the reason is easy…bog turtles are the “canary in the coal mine” for wetlands. If we find that something is negatively impacting bog turtles, it could be a sign that the wetland they use is in trouble — the same wetland we use for fishing, swimming, boating or flood protection. That’s why it is our duty to protect bog turtles and their habitat; our efforts not only protect other aquatic species, but we also benefit.

So, you can see why I spend all day stuck in the muck, hunched over a tussock to find one of these special little guys.

If you’re hooked on these turtles like I am, I invite you to learn more about what we do for bog turtles by reading my upcoming posts.

2 Comments on “Bog turtles…the canaries in the coal mine

  1. Pingback: Earth our Home too : Turtles | Propel Steps

  2. Pingback: Goodbye and thank you! | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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