The Slow Race to Save Three Turtle Species

You may have heard the timeless saying, “slow but steady wins the race,” the moral of the fable The Tortoise and the Hare. In many ways, that’s true for the biologists, researchers, conservationists, and landowners who hope to reverse the decline of three rare turtle species. A major mile marker looms ahead in 2023—when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to determine if spotted, Blanding’s, or wood turtles need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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Blanding’s turtle (left) and a wood turtle (right) at the Robert Moses Nature Center in Massena, NY (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

“While wood turtles, spotted turtles, and Blanding’s turtles are considered species at risk of needing Endangered Species Act protection, we have the opportunity to change that,” says Julie Slacum, a biologist at the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office. She explains that if the threats to these at-risk species can be addressed now, they may not need to be listed in the future.

Meet the problem:

Some researchers have estimated that these turtles’ populations are on average about half of what they once were. While definitive population figures aren’t available, it’s clear these rare turtles are becoming even rarer. Why? It’s complicated.

First, they are slow to mature. They wait until they’re upwards of 20 years old (as is the case for Blanding’s turtles) to have young. Dr. Glenn Johnson, a professor of biology at SUNY Potsdam, explains how an 83 year old Blanding’s turtle was recently documented by the “dean of Blanding’s turtle research.” This impressive discovery is rare, especially because many turtles are hit by vehicles before they reach maturity.

“The older they are, the better they are at producing more babies,” Dr. Johnson says. “It’s the old females that are most important, but they’re the ones that are crossing roads many more times in their lifetime.”

Since these parents don’t have pedestrian-crossings, Dr. Johnson posts seasonal turtle crossing signs on town and county roadways in northern New York to get motorists to slow down along roads with heavy turtle traffic.

These turtles use large tracts of land, crossing roads and agricultural operations to reach their favorite spots year after year. “They develop a mental map of their landscape and they want to do the same thing more or less every year,” says Lori Erb, a herpetologist at the Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation.

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Lori Erb documents and ages a spotted turtle found during a survey (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

While roads turn their home ranges in to a dangerous maze, landscape changes for agriculture and housing further degrade and divide wetlands and natural areas.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation biologist Mike Morgan explains what the trouble is: “It’s the dry upland where turtles nest that is also highly desirable for farmers, builders and everyone else that wants to develop land.” Over time, large farms and forests in the Northeast have become divided and re-divided into parcels, breaking up the once-connected landscape.

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Dr. Glenn Johnson (left) and Mike Morgan (right) at an old crop field that’s been restored as Blanding’s turtle nesting habitat (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

“Just hitting a single turtle as it crosses the road or taking one home as a pet has ripple effects on their slow-growing population,” says Julie Slacum, the Service’s endangered species biologist.

Roads—as well as trails and boat launches—make spotted and wood turtles even more vulnerable for illegal collection. The species are highly desired for the illegal pet trade.

Dr. Johnson agrees that each impact adds up to one big problem. “It’s like anything—you take one brick out and another brick over here—eventually the whole system collapses,” he says. “We can’t let that happen.”

Meet the partners:

The response is under way, with partnerships and funding developing to set the stage for the future of these rare turtles.

In 2004, Mike Marchand, a New Hampshire Fish & Game biologist, attended a meeting to discuss Blanding’s turtle conservation, recognizing “immediately that this is a species that moves wide distances and requires inter-state communication and coordination.”

And so began the Northeast Blanding’s Turtle Working Group. Today, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, the Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and several universities work together to restore habitat. So far, they’ve received a Science Support Partnership Program award (a USGS and Service partnership) and two Service-awarded competitive state wildlife grants – an accomplishment that speaks to the importance of collaboration.

Some conservation planning is farther along than others. Wood turtles are just a few years behind Blanding’s turtles in terms of what’s been accomplished, “and the spotted turtle is farther behind,” Marchand says. But that soon will be changing.

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A spotted turtle found during survey work (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

In 2009, the Wood Turtle Working Group was formed under the Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (NEPARC), which has received a Service-awarded regional conservation needs grant and competitive state wildlife grant. “NEPARC is great in that it provides a forum for region-wide collaboration between various partners and the public regarding a number of species, not just turtles,” says Noelle Rayman-Metcalf from the Service’s New York Field Office who is also on the NEPARC steering committee.

Benefiting both turtles and people

When it comes down to it, the same goal is shared across their range: to avoid the need to list these three species under the Endangered Species Act. The turtles’ ranges expand into the Midwest and southern Canada, with the spotted turtle found as far south as Florida. With around 75% of remaining wetlands being privately owned, private landowners have a lot of influence over the larger effort.

There are two federal programs in particular that offer technical and monetary assistance to private landowners. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program works with landowners to protect and restore wetlands, as well as streams and grasslands, for the greater benefit of the people and wildlife that live on them. Many of these restoration projects provide benefits to Blanding’s, spotted, and wood turtles, where they occur. In New York State alone, the Partners program has protected, restored and enhanced over 15,000 acres of wetlands and partnered with over 675 landowners and 60 partners.

Another way that landowners and wildlife are benefiting from proactive conservation measures is through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) ongoing Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) initiative. Just this year, spotted, Blanding’s, and wood turtles were added to the list of target species for the WLFW.

So how exactly does WLFW work? People who have rare turtles in their yards, pastures, or crop fields receive assistance to improve or expand habitat for turtles. This might include cover crop planting to better deal with high rain events and nutrient containment, or replanting riparian buffers and wetlands to improve water quality.

For a private landowner in Dutchess County, prescribed grazing with livestock such as goats and cows is a more eco-friendly way to maintain encroaching shrubs and weeds while providing ideal habitat for nesting turtles. The landowner, who has participated with NRCS since 2005 to restore 9 acres of habitat, was equally as happy with the work as the turtles.

“I would encourage people [private landowers] to get involved as I did,” the landowner said. An added benefit for him was that “the project was able to clear a substantial amount of invasive [plant] species from the area,” which are a threat to both agriculture and turtles. This has also turned into a valuable educational experience for him and his daughter, as biologists provided updates on the turtles and progress being made.

Spotted turtles in particular seem to be benefiting. Jason Tesauro, the consulting biologist for this project, says they’ve documented spotted turtle nests in areas that were completely forested prior to the restoration work.

But it’s more than just turtles that benefit, says herpetologist Lori Erb. “You can think of a lot of these turtle species as umbrella species – when you’re protecting their habitat, you’re protecting all of the other species that use the area,” Erb says. From frogs and salamanders to other charismatic species like New England cottontail, wood duck, American woodcock, brook trout, bobcat, even moose, and (depending on the area) the list goes on.

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A Blanding’s turtle nesting site in St. Lawrence County, New York (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

At a restored Blanding’s turtle nesting site in St. Lawrence County, New York, it’s the grasshopper sparrow that’s benefiting. DEC biologist Mike Morgan pauses the conversation as he excitedly listens to the sparrow, later explaining that we’re witnessing “a species of real concern here in New York State right now.” For sites like this, “there are a lot of initiatives that all come together and overlap in the same spot, so it’s a great opportunity to work with the Service and other partners,” he says.

It’s a slow race to 2023, but the collaborative work between agencies and private landowners to secure and restore habitat for these turtle species is what’s needed to determine the future of these rare turtle species.

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