Tag Archives: endangered species act

Martin Miller, 2017 Science Leadership Award Recipient

Marty Miller, the Northeast Region’s Chief of the Division of Endangered Species, is the recipient of one of the 10th Annual U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Science Awards. These awards recognize Service scientists and technical staff and celebrate their exceptional achievements in the conservation of fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats in the public trust.

As the Service faces increasingly complex challenges, the value of current scientific information is rapidly increasing. The Science Leadership Award recognizes supervisors who champion the use of science in conservation decision making and who empower their staff to accomplish scientific work and engage in the scientific community.

“Marty has established himself as an unparalleled thought leader related to all things Endangered Species Act and manages his high-functioning team in a considerate and strategic manner. He is unwavering in his dedication to ensuring the best science is appropriately applied to ESA decisions, whether it is a listing determination, a habitat conservation plan, or an ESA consultation with another federal agency. Marty believes in empowering his team to ‘be science leaders’ and participate in the scientific community through collaborating with other scientists, serving as peer reviewers, serving on graduate committees, presenting at scientific conferences, and authoring numerous scientific publications. This award recognizes Marty as an outstanding science leader, relationship builder, and tackler of complex policy situations through science.” – Greg Sheehan, Principal Deputy Director.

  1. What is a day in the life of an Endangered Species Chief like?

I spend most of my day talking with field office biologists and supervisors and Regional Office program coordinators about resource and regulatory issues and workload management.  I also spend a good bit of time reviewing documents for appropriate policy application.  Budget and workforce planning are no small part of the job.  I’m always struggling to find time to get past the urgent to focus on the important – how to position the program to meet tomorrow’s demands.

  1. What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your job?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is working with biologists who have a passion for conservation and helping them be successful.  I also find policy development rewarding; I enjoy the challenge of making the ESA work for both species and people.

  1. This award recognizes supervisors who empower staff to accomplish scientific work. Could you tell us about your perspective on this?

The endangered species staff biologists of the FWS are the ones who work with the science day in and day out.  They have the technical expertise to determine what science is needed for their work and build partnerships to produce that science.  I see my role as assessing and prioritizing those needs across the program.  I’m also fortunate to supervise an incredible team of Endangered Species Program Coordinators who are driven to continually make their programs more efficient and effective and more grounded in sound science.  The best thing I can do to support them is to give them the time to run with their good ideas.

  1. The award also highlights your achievements in incorporating science in conservation decision-making. Could you tell us about the importance of that? When is it most critical?

It’s often the case that we’re required to make a decision when we don’t have science that directly answers our questions; in these cases the biologists must draw the most reasonable inferences from the available science.  This places a huge responsibility on our biologists to be objective and transparent in dealing with uncertainty.  Our biologists take this responsibility seriously.  I’ve found that when people are given responsibility, they muster all their knowledge, talents, and determination to meet that expectation.  This requires a thorough understanding of our information standards recognizing when to seek input from other experts.  I see my job as helping them through this process.

  1. How do we balance making decisions and workload with the opportunity to continue to gain more science?

We can be highly confident that we’ve made the right decisions in the face of uncertainty, that we’ve drawn the most reasonable inferences from the available science, but it’s always better to reduce the uncertainties so we can make decisions based on stronger inferences.  Finding the time and funding to produce new science and perform complex analyses is growing more and more challenging as our staff and budgets decrease.  We need to recognize that we can be more efficient and effective in the long run by producing new science that reduces key uncertainties than by continuing to struggle through decision-making in the face of that uncertainty.  Because our decisions can have significant consequences for species conservation as well as people’s livelihoods, we have to make it a priority to devote some resources to addressing our greatest science needs.

  1. Is there a role model who influenced you?

Throughout my career, I’ve had the good fortune of working for many supervisors and other Service leaders who made me feel that ensuring our decisions are based on sound science was just part of my job, that it wasn’t something to be debated or to consider making exceptions for.  You’re in a good place when what you understand to be your job and what you understand to be the right thing to do are the same thing.

  1. What do you do when you’re not in the office?

I probably spend more time cycling than anything else these days.  But I have to admit that when I’m commuting on my bike I’m usually thinking about policy questions.  I’ve spent more hours thinking about some of these issues than I care to admit.


A “Shell” of a Good Time in the Field


Today, we are hearing from Alyssa Martinez, the summer outreach intern at the New York Field Office. Alyssa is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar through North Carolina State University where she is studying zoology. She brings a passion for environmental education and hopes to share her experiences in the field (here she is with a bog turtle)!



With one foot in the muck and both eyes focused ahead, I lunge forward…. SLURP! My boot comes out of the unsympathetic wetland soil beneath my feet. This may not be a typical day on the job for an outreach intern, but for me it was an opportunity to find North America’s smallest turtle in a rare, yet diverse habitat. I trailed behind a team of biologists, hoping to find and record important scientific information about these tiny critters.

Bog turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Populations have declined primarily by habitat loss and fragmentation. During my first full week as the outreach intern, I was lucky enough to get out in the field and spend some time helping with bog turtle surveys. Having just started working with the New York Field Office (NYFO), I was excited for this new experience.

Equipped with hip-waders and a stick, I was ready to find some turtles. The stick is used to probe the mud and vegetation in search of turtles, but it also has the added benefit of saving your fall when the mud starts claiming your foot.


Probing the muck for turtles (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

I was told by some veterans on the team that a distinctive sound can be heard when your stick hits a turtle shell. The sound was described as hollow and woody; easier said than done.  For a rookie, other things sound hollow and woody when you hit them. Many times I probed into the mud with my stick, hit something that sounded like a turtle shell, felt a rush of excitement, and reached into the mud only to come up with a reed, log, or other non-turtle matter.

After many unsuccessful attempts, I was so hungry to find a turtle and desperate to contribute to the efforts, that my mind started tricking me and I would see turtles everywhere: dead leaves started to look like shells, twigs sticking out of the mud became turtle heads; you name it. In the end, all I found were dead leaves, mud, and the occasional frog. I guess beginner’s luck wasn’t on my side.

Although I didn’t personally find a turtle, the team ended up finding several turtles throughout the day. At first we found spotted turtles, and then finally I heard a member of the team yell “bog turtle!”


This female bog turtle’s shell is reddish due to natural iron deposits in the wetland (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

Now I could finally see the small size of this species. I was used to handling juvenile turtles of this size, but these were mature adults and only the size of my palm! I am familiar with eastern box turtles that have yellow markings on their shell, and painted turtles which have bright red plastrons (“belly” side of a turtle’s shell), but bog turtles are more subtle in their markings. You can see the distinct orange-yellow spots on either side of their heads and the tree-ring-like patterns on their shell. Much like a tree, these rings are counted to determine the age of the turtle.


The team of surveyors in the wetland (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

In the past, I have helped out with Blanding’s turtle surveys and I worked at a turtle rehabilitation facility at my college, so turtles are dear to my heart. Getting a chance to see this small, rare species out in the wild was an opportunity of a lifetime. While I didn’t have the bragging rights of finding a turtle of my own, I truly enjoyed the experience. As a newbie in the field, I was constantly learning from a team of very knowledgeable people. Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, an Endangered Species Biologist at the NYFO, helped me identify what birds were providing the soundtrack of our exploration, as well as the different types of plants in the wetlands that indicate the health of the habitat.

I came away from the experience exhausted and full of new information. I knew if I was given another chance to go out and get my boots stuck in the mud in pursuit of finding bog turtles, I would without a doubt.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.