Tag Archives: strategic habitat conservation

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.

The road to conserving the Appalachian landscape

jean brennan

Today you’re hearing from Jean Brennan, the coordinator of the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative, a public-private partnership that is part of a national network providing share science to ensure the sustainability of America’s land, water, wildlife and cultural resources.

Coming into the landscape conservation cooperatives world from a science background, I often get asked, “What brought you to the job?”

It’s actually an easy question – throughout my entire career I have witnessed increasing threats to our natural resources, loss of biodiversity and decline of fish and wildlife populations.

The observed impacts of increasing climate change, however, forced a realization that action must be taken now if we hope to keep our options open – to help facilitate the adaptation of natural systems trying to transition through the profound and abrupt changes anticipated – based on the observed trends.

I admit my background is perhaps not typical. My research pursuits have been varied, including

  • primate behavior in Kenya,
  • mongoose ecology in Madagascar,
  • evolutionary genetics of large mammals in Malaysia and
  • sea otter population biology in California.

I have always been motivated by my love of nature and support of environmental protection. But the transition into climate change and adaptation focus followed my experience through my work as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I served as a diplomatic officer with the U.S. State Department.

While at State, I worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and served at the United Nations Negotiations on climate change. I was one of a select number of scientists recognized “for contributing to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC.” I was later hired as a science officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and I worked overseas to provide national or regional biodiversity and natural resource strategic planning and conservation.

apple_orchards_fall_virginia_matt_cimitile_appalachianlccI now work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a national agenda initiated to efficiently coordinate conservation efforts. Landscape conservation cooperatives were created because many of the environmental issues of today transcend state lines and organizational areas of responsibility.

This is especially true in the Appalachian region, where I am the coordinator for the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

The Appalachian mountains and rivers have, and are continuing to experience, environmental impacts associated with energy development, urban expansion and transformation of agricultural lands. This has resulted in the fragmentation of habitats, genetic isolation of species, dramatic changes in the water cycle and the expansion of harmful invasive species. Emerging land-use changes, as well as a changing climate, will likely exacerbate these threats. Without large-scale and long-term planning, adaptation options will be increasingly lost.

The Appalachian LCC – like all LCCs – is self-directed and crosses political and organizational boundaries to help wildlife and natural resource managers achieve conservation goals at a landscape-level, beyond the jurisdictions and resources of any one agency or partnership.

The focus of conservation science has shifted to achieve large-scale conservation across a matrix of various land-uses, human benefits and environmental services. Greater conservation can be achieved through higher coordination and more strategic investment of scarce resources.

So the answer to the question of how I came to the LCC effort is simple: how could I do anything else?

Planning at the landscape level will be our best hope to achieve conservation, maintain the resilience of natural systems and sustain the environmental benefits nature provides human communities. This shift in science and management represents a transformational time in the history of conservation, and I am honored to be able to play a role.

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Black bear

Viewing conservation through a wider lens

black bear

A black bear. Credit: USFWS

Brawny male black bears can be found rummaging through the thick understory of many New England forests, and about this time, many are getting cozy in their dens. But in the warmer months, these guys are known to do a lot of traveling. A single black bear’s home range can stretch from 20 to 50 square miles, covering acres of forests, wetlands and even communities.

From a conservation point of view, animals with a wide range like the black bears’ can be difficult to manage. But that’s exactly what Ken Elowe wanted to figure out.

Elowe leads one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region programs as the assistant regional director of Science Applications, a program working on the science of today’s conservation methods. He came to the Service in 2010 after working in the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for 23 years. Elowe is incredibly passionate about his work in conservation, which started 30 years ago, when he did graduate research on black bear habitats. He is driven by the desire to ensure that our children and their children can continue to enjoy the beauty of nature.

Ken Elowe

Ken Elowe is the Assistant Regional Director of Science Applications for our agency in the Northeast Region.

“A hundred years from now,” said Elowe, “we want our fish and wildlife to still have a functional place to live and operate on the landscape.”

To face growing threats to the health of fish, wildlife and the natural systems that make up our landscape in the Northeast, Elowe – along with the Service and many of its partners – believes that approaching conservation from a holistic perspective is our best hope for fish and wildlife into the future.

To achieve that vision, the Service is working with partners to do conservation work at a landscape scale and consolidate the multitude of individual environmental, conservation and natural resource management actions into one big picture. For example, when conserving a forest, management plans could very well be applied based on individual animals and plants. A separate plan for moose, a separate plan for eagles and a separate plan for deer and bears could all apply to one forest. But doing conservation work at a landscape scale means that experts work to develop one all-inclusive plan that provides for all wildlife.

Elowe compares each conservation action to a patch on a quilt, and when we create a common landscape design plan, we can sew all those patches together.

“We’ve conserved wetlands. We’ve created wildlife refuges, management lands and we’ve created national parks,” he said. “But we’ve never stitched them all together so that they are a connected, functioning landscape.”

This concept can be seen in Maine’s Beginning with Habitat program, a program that Elowe worked on from the mid 1990s until his move to the Service. The program pulls together federal agencies, Maine, state agencies, local communities and non-governmental organizations. It strives to conserve habitats that support all native plants and animals in Maine. The program also supports towns, land trusts and others in making the best possible scientifically based decisions for people and wildlife.


Interns learning how to take measures of sea turtle nests at Virginia Beach. Credit: USFWS

The Service’s Northeast Region and its partners are strategically looking at what, where and how much habitat is needed for fish, wildlife and plants. By working through partnerships, like joint ventures and landscape conservation cooperatives (LCCs), experts can bring landscape scale conservation to life, and apply it to the entire region.

The LCCs, like Beginning with Habitat in Maine, are a forum for partners to come together over large areas to coordinate conservation efforts and develop the science and tools needed to put conservation plans into action.

“The LCCs are really doing what no federal agency, state agency or organization can do alone,” Elowe explained. “They integrate people and conservation on large scales.”

Elowe hopes that landscape scale perspectives will make it easier to meet to the needs of all parties, from wildlife to agencies to communities.


A moose at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Thomas Tetzner/USFWS

“People are concerned with how their areas look, feel and smell, what views they can get, where they can recreate, and where they can farm,” he said. “Through the work of LCCs, those important aspects [and many others I didn’t list] can be built into conservation, bringing people and conservation together on a bigger scale.”

So for the black bear, now snug in his den for his winter hibernation, taking a landscape scale approach can find a sustainable way for nature to provide a home for him, his future generations and his neighbors.

Written by: Raechel I. Kelley

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