Federal Program Benefits Threatened Bog Turtles

  • Hatchling bog turtles easily fit into the palm of a hand. Adult bog turtles aren't much bigger at three to four inches long. Photo: George C. Gress / The Nature Conservancy

  • Open wetlands like this one in Northeastern Pennsylvania are disappearing. Bog turtles need this swampy, sunny habitat to breed and survive. Photo: George C. Gress / The Nature Conservancy

  • Bog turtles, and other threatened species, will benefit from a new federal program, Working Lands for Wildlife. Photo: George C. Gress / The Nature Conservancy

May 10, 2013

A few years ago, The Allegheny Front followed George Gress of the Nature Conservancy as he followed a bog turtle outfitted with a radio transmitter.

Gress and volunteers were tracking the turtles to learn what they were up to in the open wetlands they call home. It’s not an easy process. Gress calls bog turtles secretive. Plus they are just a few inches long. In the summer, waist-high grasses make them almost impossible to spot.

Gress says the biggest threat to bog turtles is a loss of wetlands. That loss comes from all the usual suspects, such as housing developments and roads that separate small turtle populations from each other and limit their travel to reproduce.

These days, Gress’s team is back out in the bogs doing more research. They’ll be in the field from April through June. Now instead of tracking turtles, they are counting them. And their estimates are encouraging.

“One of the populations that we were studying has over 200 turtles, and so that’s probably the highest population of turtles in their northern range,” Gress says.

In another location, Gress says his team unexpectedly found their monitored turtles on a patch where a farmer was growing hay. There, Gress was able to make recommendations on management based on previous research.

“The local farmer was mowing the field and we changed the timing of that mowing so that it would be done when the turtles were not using the field,” Gress explains.

He will have more support for working with landowners thanks to the establishment of a new federal program called Working Lands for Wildlife. About a dozen of the farmers and landowners Gress works with have signed on.

The new program is a partnership between the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It provides funding for wildlife managers to advise and help make changes on properties that favor bog turtles and other threatened species. Landowners could even receive up to thousands of dollars an acre for designating easements on their properties—areas where they pledge not to disturb turtle habitats.

Gress says the new program will make a big impact.

“We have guided some of the landowners that we were already working with that may have been a little bit hesitant. They weren’t sure of what was going to happen with their wetlands or they weren’t sure about what they want to do with them,” he says.

Most bog turtles live on private land.