Tag Archives: at-risk species

Back to School: A Turtle’s Head Start

It’s that time of year once again! As summer adventures come to a close, students begin shifting gears and buckling down for the year of learning ahead. For students in 22 lucky schools throughout Massachusetts, they’ll be sharing their classrooms with some tiny turtles who are looking to get a little head-start on their year too.

For Blanding’s turtles in Massachusetts, a head-start in schools can have a huge impact on their future. Biologists from the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex and their partners across the state have discovered that allowing the hatchling turtles to grow a bit bigger and stronger in captivity for their first nine months of life can greatly improve their chances of survival in the wild.

The Blanding’s turtle is a semi-aquatic freshwater turtle that typically uses vernal pools, marshes, and slow-flowing wetlands for breeding and feeding. They can be identified by their highly-domed top shell, or carapace, and their unique bright yellow chin and throat that creates a turtley cheerful grin. Unlike some other freshwater turtle species, Blanding’s turtles cover a lot of ground, up to a mile, while searching for wetlands and suitable nesting habitat.

When Blanding’s turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests, only around 1 in 5 of the quarter-sized, defenseless (their shells are actually soft after hatching) turtles avoid becoming a snack-sized bite for lurking predators in their first year. While low survival of hatchlings is common in many turtle species, Blanding’s turtle populations are in particularly serious decline due to a number of factors. This decline is partly because the long-lived turtle doesn’t reach sexual maturity until 15-20 years of age, making it very important for turtles to reach adulthood and reproduce. This can be especially challenging for adult Blanding’s turtles who frequently cross roads and other hazardous landscapes. Currently, the species is under review to determine if federal protection under the Endangered Species Act is warranted.

A Blanding’s turtle hatchling Photo by Rob Bowers/ USFWS

A portion of the hatchlings from each nest are randomly chosen for the head-start program and the remaining turtles enter their habitat as they naturally would. Raising the turtles in captivity during their first year before releasing them into the wild helps them grow to a larger size more quickly, decreasing their chances of being predated. During head-starting, the newly-hatched turtles are fed daily and kept in warm water, allowing them to grow three to four times faster than they would in the wild. Once they’ve grown for nine months, the turtles are released back into the wild. With this extra growing time, their first-year survival rate jumps to close to 80%, with an even higher chance of survival in subsequent years as they get even larger.

Blanding’s turtles aren’t the only ones benefiting! Students play a huge role in the growth and development of the turtles, while also gaining hands-on experience with scientific techniques and wildlife management. Students also learn about the challenges facing the turtles and their own environmental impacts.

Biologists measure the length of the hatchling’s carapace. Photo by Rob Bowers/ USFWS

Brian Bastarache, Natural Resources Program Coordinator at Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, MA, has been one of the leading advocates for the use of head-starting to combat declining turtle populations. Brian and his students have been raising the majority of the program’s Blanding’s turtle head-starts every year since 2009 as well as working to head-start the federally endangered northern red-bellied cooters. He thinks the experience students gain from working with the turtles is more beneficial than any worksheet.

“Real-world work is real. Classroom lessons are simply trivia without an understanding of its application, and turtles happen to be well suited for this lesson. Students also foster a positive appreciation for their own capacity to engage in their work and contribute to a larger conservation effort.”

For Bristol County Agricultural High School Alumnus Kourtnie Bouley, the message of wildlife conservation inspired her to pursue a two-year internship with the Service, where she helped protect the nests, gather the hatchlings from the field, and process the turtle hatchlings at the refuge after helping to raise them as a student.

“Helping to head-start the turtles really helped connect what we were learning in the classroom to a real life conservation strategies. The overall satisfaction of being able to make a difference in the long term survival of this species was very rewarding. My experience with the Blanding’s turtles came full circle once working with the Service.”

Currently, the largest population of Blanding’s turtles in the Northeast resides within  Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The population is so healthy and stable that it allows a portion of the head-started turtles to be introduced into new areas within their historic range. With numerous wetlands and upland nesting habitat, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts (also within the Eastern Massachusetts NWR Complex) provides an ideal location for reintroduction. Since the program began in 2006, over 900 Blanding’s turtle head-starts have been released to the refuge. With another good season of hatching success this summer, the one-thousandth Blanding’s turtle head-start could be released next spring.

The long-term success of this program will not be known for several years, but if successful, it could result in the third or fourth largest population of Blanding’s turtles in the northeastern United States. And to the dedicated biologists, partners, teachers, and students involved with the head-starting project, it has already provided unforgettable experiences and long-lasting memories.

Salamander Fairyland: Conserving a unique treasure in the Blue Ridge Mountains

On a cool, crisp evening, Liberty University professors and their students trek through the damp understory of the Jefferson National Forest as the sun falls behind the treeline.

By the time they arrive at their study site among the trees, it is completely dark and lightly drizzling. Equipped with headlamps, they creep along transect lines, scouring the vegetation for glimpses of gold.

They are hunting for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander. Often beginning at eight o’clock and working until one in the morning, they search for the salamander while it hunts for worms and springtails – its invertebrate prey.

Professors Norm Reichenbach, Paul Sattler, Tim Brophy and David Marsh have been working with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander for nearly two decades. Their research not only allows students to experience the species up close, but also helps federal and state agencies to better understand and manage this unique amphibian.

“This is a great partnership that helps secure the future of the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” Reichenbach said. “Since most of the range of this salamander is in areas managed by the Forest Service and NPS, universities working cooperatively with these agencies can engage in research that aids in the conservation of these species.”

Reichenbach and Marsh study a variety of subjects regarding the species’ ecology, such as how habitat changes like timber harvest might affect the salamander or how other species, like the eastern red-backed salamander, might impact the Peaks-of-Otter salamander.

Known as “sit and wait predators,” this salamander often forages while perched atop forest vegetation, unintentionally revealing itself to the researchers and students that seek to round them up, at least for a little while.

The metallic, brassy flecks that speckle this critter’s dark brown body help the students to identify and grab the salamander before it scoots to a hiding spot under the damp leaves that coat the forest floor.

“You have to see them before they see you,” said Reichenbach, professor of biology at Liberty University.

Because the salamander can also be found under downed logs – or any other place where moisture is naturally trapped and the ground is cool – professors and students spend many hours hunkered over, flipping over anything that may reveal a golden prize.

An hour or less from their classroom, Reichenbach’s students learn about conservation hands on in the biologically rich Appalachians, which just so happens to be right in their backyard.

“You can be in one spot that has one species, walk as little as a few hundred meters, and then find a completely different species,” said Marsh, professor at Washington and Lee University. “You can think of the Southern Appalachians as a sort of salamander Galapagos.”

With a world-wide distribution of only 12 miles, this salamander’s range is contained almost entirely in Virginia’s Peaks-of-Otter region within the Jefferson National Forest and the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Not to mention, it’s found only at elevations above 1600 ft.

The salamander’s limited range has landed it on the radar of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been working with the National Forest and Park Service to better understand the status of this at-risk species.

The U.S. Forest Service has been managing the Jefferson National Forest with the Peaks-of-Otter salamander in mind for nearly 20 years. In 1997, a conservation agreement between the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service established primary and secondary conservation areas to guide timber harvesting and manage this sensitive species.

The Peaks-of-Otter salamander, like all plethodon amphibians, has no lungs – breathing entirely through the tissues in its mouth and skin. Preserving adequate canopy cover to prevent the sun from drying out soil and leaf litter is crucial as the salamander relies on adequate ground moisture to keep their skin moist enough to extract oxygen from the air.

In the primary conservation area no trees are cut, and in the secondary area timber harvest activities must meet guidelines for protecting Peaks-of-Otter habitat, such as leaving at least 50 percent of the canopy intact and leaving large woody debris on the ground.

These guidelines were informed by the research of the local professors and students who continue to study the Peaks-of-Otter salamander and its biology on an continuing basis.

“Ongoing research has enhanced our understanding of the species and helped to shape many of the existing management practices in place today,” said Rose Agbalog, Service biologist.

“Partnerships are critical to conservation efforts,” added Fred Huber, retired Forest Botanist for the Jefferson National Forest. “By sharing knowledge, combining resources, and coordinating research, we can move more quickly and effectively to protect species.”

Partnerships like these between universities and federal agencies take the conservation of at-risk species to new heights, potentially precluding the need to list them under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to the devoted conservation efforts underway, the Peaks-of-Otter salamander is abundant within its limited range.

One night after a recent rain, Reichenbach recalled that the moss-covered boulders along the side of a ridge were strewn with this alluring critter. Huber and Reichenbach found sixty salamanders in just two hours, remembering it fondly as a “fairyland of salamanders.”

“The U.S. Forest Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway have worked for over 20 years to conserve important habitat for the Peaks-of-Otter salamander,” said Agbalog. “With continuing collaboration and conservation efforts from these agencies and local university partners, we hope to secure the future of this unique species.”

Something for everyone in State Wildlife Action Plans

No two are exactly alike: Snowflakes, butterflies, and State Wildlife Action Plans.

Pennsylvania’s is the largest (a whopping 14 pounds) and includes a foreword written by a Pulitzer Prize nominee.


New and improved! The updated State Wildlife Action Plans are designed to inspire coordinated action to protect species in need.

Connecticut’s is the smallest (in their words, the most “concise”), and covers flora in addition to fauna.

Rhode Island’s was the first to be finished in the nation and features a companion Wildlife Quiz. (I scored an abysmal 40 percent, but have a newfound appreciation for opossum.)

The District of Columbia’s includes two freshwater sponges once found in Rock Creek Park.

Each one is unique, but they all have the same purpose: outlining exactly what needs to happen in each state to protect the fish and wildlife we care about in the face of increasing threats.

Fortunately, the plans all have the same basic structure too, which makes them particularly handy for people who work in conservation in different parts of the region. People like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff.

“We want to inspire ourselves and partners to figure out: What are the biggest threats? What are the best ways to respond? How do we mobilize people? What do we want them to do?” explained Virginia’s State Wildlife Action Plan coordinator Chris Burkett during a presentation at the Regional Office to introduce Service staff to the new plans on March 22nd.

Burkett and 11 of his counterparts from across the region (only New Jersey and D.C. were unable to attend), stopped by the Regional Office for the meet and greet in the midst of a three-day SWAP coordinators meeting in Amherst, Mass., where they compared notes (and page counts) from the second generation of documents that were already ahead of their time when first developed ten years ago.


The brains behind the plans: Wildlife Action Plan coordinators from across the Northeast region met in Massachusetts in March to compare notes (and page counts) from the 10-year updates of comprehensive plans to support species of greatest conservation need.

“After decades spent working one critter at a time, we realized we needed a more strategic approach,” said Burkett. “It’s not enough to keep species from going extinct. We need to keep them from becoming endangered in the first place.”

That ambitious goal led Congress to establish the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant Program in 2001 to provide annual appropriations to each state for targeted investments in wildlife. On one condition: Come up with a plan for how your state is going to do it.

The completion of the first generation of State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs) in 2005 signaled a new era for endangered species conservation, with the Northeast at the leading edge.

“One of the things that came out in discussions after the first Wildlife Actions Plans was that few of these species are confined to one state. They occur over multiple jurisdictions,” said Burkett. “So how do we address their needs collectively?”

In 2006, representatives from all 13 states met in Albany, N.Y., to identify issues of regional concern, and to determine what needed to be done at the landscape-scale to address them. Along with priorities, the meeting in Albany gave rise to a means of funding them: the Regional Conservation Needs (RCN) program, which draws four percent of each state’s Wildlife Grant funding into a common pool to support regional projects.

“We are the only region that has done this,” noted Burkett. “As a result, we have funded more than 40 projects that are meant to support all of our Wildlife Action Plans, including the the Northeast Habitat Classification system, Northeast habitat maps, and effectiveness measures that have contributed to the development of national measures.”


State lines? Black bear don’t care. Since many at-risk species occur across multiple jurisdictions, the Northeast states have worked together to develop shared strategies for protecting fish and wildlife based on regional scale habitat data.

The 10-year Wildlife Action Plan updates completed last fall reflect the evolution in regional planning born of the RCN program, and fostered by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) after its establishment in 2010.

During their recent meeting, the SWAP coordinators focused on how to keep the momentum going with plans that are designed to help identify opportunities to collaborate with each other, and with the Service.

“Having been with these folks for a day and a half, I can tell you that because these plans were cross-walked so well, they speak like a regional plan, which intersects with Fish and Wildlife Service priorities left, right, and up and down,” said Chief of the Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration for the Northeast region Colleen Sculley, ticking off examples: “Aquatic Connectivity, Species At Risk, Coastal Resilience. Our priorities are emerging and aligning, and putting us in a position to do great conservation across the Northeast.”

The North Atlantic LCC has played a key supporting role in that regard by coordinating a team of partners from 13 states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nongovernmental organizations, and universities to develop a landscape conservation design that lays the groundwork for unified action across the entire region by incorporating habitat needs for more than 3,000 species of animals and plants, including those identified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in updated Wildlife Action Plans.

“We’ve been working for 18 months to identify where to put resources on the ground to do the most good, and to make the best use of our money,” said Burkett, a member of the project team. As such, the products of that effort provide regional perspective that can be used in complement to information in SWAPs to find places where partners can act on shared priorities.

“So if you live in Hampton Roads area of Virginia, you can use the plan to see: here are the things we care about, here are the threats, and here are best places to start,” said Burkett. “We want to be as clear as possible.”

That includes outreach to Service staff who are working in any of these states. “We want to get information out in a form that you can use it,” said Emily Preston of New Hampshire. “If you are working in New Hampshire, we want to know where. We are here to partner with you.”

Find more information and links to all of the revised SWAPs on the North Atlantic LCC website.