Big Efforts to Save North America's Smallest Turtle

One of Pennsylvania's most endangered natives is the bog turtle, a tiny but important species that lives in eastern Pennsylvania's disappearing spring-fed wetlands. Development and the loss of agricultural meadowlands have taken a toll on the turtle and its habitat. But a major partnership between scientists and landowners could reverse the downward trend. The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg has the story.

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OPEN: One of Pennsylvania's most endangered natives is the bog turtle, a tiny but important species that lives in eastern Pennsylvania's disappearing spring-fed wetlands. Development and the loss of agricultural meadowlands have taken a toll on the turtle and its habitat. But a major partnership between scientists and landowners could reverse the downward trend. The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg has the story.

(Birdsong)

Weisberg: Penn State University wetlands biologist Gian Rocco hoists himself over a pasture gate while a herd of curious cows looks on. This three acre wetlands is home to a colony of bog turtles. Although they are one of Pennsylvania's most endangered species, Rocco says this carefully managed colony is thriving.

Rocco: Maybe the most distinctive aspect of this marsh is the fact that it is has been fenced to contain livestock and the livestock in this case are serving to control the invasion of woody species.

Weisberg:Development was proposed for the area, but when bog turtles were discovered, the property owners agreed to have their marsh managed for this rare species. Much of Pennsylvania's spring-fed habitat has been lost to sprawl.

(Sound of watery footsteps)

Weisberg: Rocco and fellow biologist Scott Fiegel are checking turtle traps here and at similar spots throughout eastern Pennsylvania, slogging sometimes knee-deep through muck seven days a week, from the time turtles emerge from hibernation until they begin laying eggs in mid-June. Fiegel says the mucky substrate protects turtles from predators and helps them regulate their body temperature.

Fiegel: They're known as having wet feet and a dry shell. You often find them just with their shell exposed while they're down in the mud and the muck.

Weisberg: Fiegel and Rocco have to check traps at least once a day to prevent the turtles from overheating. To call this labor-intensive is an understatement, but one that comes with great rewards.

Rocco: Here we have our first capture. Looks like a young turtle. Weíll see in a minute what sex.

Weisberg: Rocco gently removes the turtle from the trap. It fits into the palm of his hand, which is pretty standard size for a bog turtle.

Rocco: She crawled right up. What is really nice about this animal is it's never been found. It's a new turtle and this site keeps producing more new unmarked turtles.

Weisberg: Rocco counts the rings on her shell to determine her age.

Rocco: I can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Very beautiful animal. Now you can see the appeal. Diminutive turtle. You can see the orange blotch on either side of neck. They promptly come out of shell and investigate their surroundings. Beautiful. Hahaha, look at this one. Unmarked. Beautiful. Impressive.

Weisberg: Despite being handled, the turtle doesn't retreat into its shell. That curiosity and apparent lack of fear make it especially vulnerable to poachers. Because they are small and friendly, as well as beautifully marked, bog turtles are in demand on the black market. Although, trafficking in any protected species is a serious federal crime.

Rocco: It's easy to love them to death. Everyone wants to have them as a pet because they look so adorable. They fetch a pretty high price in the pet trade. I'm sure they're a pretty hot item in Europe and Japan and other markets.

Weisberg: Rocco processes the young female.

Rocco: Letís get the file.
(Rustling sound of him getting file)

Weisberg: First he uses a metal file to make a notch in the edge of its shell so it can be identified in future surveys.

(Filing sound, blows on notch)
Very small notch.
(Filing sound)

Weisberg: As Rocco files, the turtle retreats into its
shell.

Rocco: Very small notch. Put another notch over here. Come on. Not so bad.

(Turtle being placed on scale)

Rocco: It's 88 grams, or about 3 1/8th ounces.

Weisberg: Rocco weighs and measures the turtle while Feigel records the data in a notebook before returning the turtle to the muck.
(Sound of animal being placed in mud)

Weisberg: Bog turtles live a long time but are slow to sexually mature and typically produce just three eggs a year. It's one reason colonies fail to rebound from poaching and habitat degradation. Bog turtles have traditionally thrived in spring-fed meadowlands, where cows control woody vegetation. That in turn promotes the growth of Tussock sedge and other grasses turtles need for nesting and basking in the sun. Fiegel says cows are a key part of managing bog turtle habitat.

Fiegel: Itís found that controlled grazing-you allow cattle in some of these areas that will help cut back on woody vegetation as well as tree growth and also there's hands-on activities, where we go in with chainsaws and cut down on some of the red maple and other species that are creating an over-story and shading a wetland.

Weisberg: Landowner cooperation is seen as critical to the future of the bog turtle in other ways, too. The Nature Conservancy is buying easements from willing property owners so it can better manage and protect the bog turtle. It's also selling bog turtle habitat to cooperative landowners, like this woman who lives on a northeastern Pennsylvania farm.

(Sound of rooster)

Weisberg: We're not identifying her to protect her property from poachers.

Landowner: We found this farmhouse and we were very much interested in it. There had been some lookers but because of the bog there had to be a stipulation that you wouldn't develop it. Being a person into conservation, that appealed to my husband and I. In fact, it's one of the things I'm most proud of, being able to protect a little part of the environment for tomorrow's children.
(Sound of rooster)

Weisberg: She has a good relationship with Conservancy land steward George Gress, who often comes to track turtle movement across her 6-acre bog. The goal is to see if turtles are traveling far enough to ensure genetic exchange and to help the Conservancy expand habitat management efforts.

(Sound of footsteps)

Weisberg: Heading into the bog, Gress holds up what looks like an old-fashioned TV antenna to try to pick up the signal of a turtle that's been outfitted with a tiny radio transmitter, startimg with where the turtle was last found. Amid the static, Gress begins to pick up a faint chirping sound that gets stronger as he walks through the bog using the antenna to guide him.

Gress: She's definitely moved. She's out there now.

Weisberg: The signal eventually leads him to a new wetland 200 yards away.

Gress: Should be right down in there. There's her antenna and her shell. See it. Her transmitter's all intact. She hissed a little. She looks like a happy camper.

Weisberg: Gress is surprised at how far the turtle has moved in less than a week and encouraged, since one of his goals is to restore at least some of the bog turtles' range.

Gress: One of the future things we hope to do is to create wetlands close to bog turtle areas that are existing and hopefully increase populations. Maybe if things go right, we can get to the point where we can even reintroduce bog turtles. Still a long way off, but it's one of those far-out things we hope we can get to.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Deborah Weisberg.