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The Tortoise Reserve, Inc., Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, and Conservation International hosted a day-long workshop to develop action plans for the long-range protection of bog turtle habitat in Maryland. The meeting was held at Jug Bay on 27 February 2001. Participation was by invitation and the number of people invited was limited to allow for a productive working atmosphere. The fifty people who attended represented a wide range of conservation interest groups from both the private and public sectors. The action plans developed are ones that will address the needs and concerns of the entire conservation community. The following is the opening address given to this workshop.
Bog Turtles and Isolated Wetlands: a challenge for private sector conservation efforts
David S. Lee, The Tortoise Reserve, Inc.
“We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.”
Rudyard Kipling 1902.
The Amargosa toad (Bufo nelsoni), a south-eastern Nevada endemic with a restricted range of only about 100 square miles, is a victim of uncontrolled grazing, off-road vehicles, introduced predators, and highway traffic intercepting them on their way to and from breeding pools. Because of these threats the toad is highly endangered. In addition to help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the usual cast of characters, this species is getting an important boost from an unexpected segment in the private sector. Near Beatty, Nevada, the toads are multiplying and doing well on lands owned by a local brothel. The female employees are excited about their role in the conservation of this endangered amphibian and are taking an active part in its stewardship. The site has been classified as critical habitat for the species.
Times are changing about the way people in the United States are directing conservation efforts. The toad in Nevada is but a single, and yes admittedly an extreme, example. On a number of fronts private individuals, foundations, NGOs, and land trusts are stepping up the plate. This commitment is generally being applauded and encouraged by regional and federal governments. In many cases governments and tax laws have provided incentives to encourage this private sector involvement. The safe harbors program of USFWS and the very essence of TNC come to mind, and at this workshop we will learn about the potential for a number of other key cooperative programs. We are fortunate in that Maryland as a state has played a lead role in endangered species issues and conservation in general. This is particularly true of work done on the bog turtle. Other states see Maryland’s Wildlife and Heritage program as a model for bog turtle conservation. This is not an overstatement. Major portions of the guide lines of federal programs and those of other states have been written or modified directly from what has been established here. Maryland is also a leader in cooperative programs with the private sector. Funds for management and restoration of key wetlands are now available through state run programs. This type of cooperation was unheard of a decade ago. At the same time land trusts and other private grass-root organizations are escalating their activities. This is a trying time for conservation, but it is also an exciting time.
A lot of the important and time-consuming ground work has already been carried out by the state of Maryland. Intensive bog turtle site inventories, prioritization of conservation activities, educational programs, and legal aspects of wetland management are already in place. The EPA has issued a number of base maps showing the various levels of environmental concerns for all the drainage systems within the range of the bog turtle in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Future conservation activities can build on these works and the ideas that we produce at this workshop will be framed by them. Until now the strategy to protect bog turtles in Maryland was to keep everything low key. Because it was perceived that over collecting was the main issue facing bog turtle survival, wildlife agencies and others working with this turtle were reluctant to provide information to others for fear that collectors would somehow take advantage of any information shared. As a result, it has been difficult for other state and federal agencies, land trusts and similar private organizations, to work with Maryland programs on behalf of this turtle. As a result of this important sites were lost. It is time to break away from a secret approach to the conservation of bog turtles. We need the help and support of everyone in the conservation community, and we need to educate landowners, developers, and land managers about the key issues. We cannot do pro-active conservation and at the same time keep everyone in the dark. This does not imply that we should make site maps available on the internet, or even share site specific information except on an as need basis. But we do need to involve a larger segment of our society in the overall effort. It is clear from the participation in this very meeting that the willingness to help is broad based. I suspect most of this meeting’s participants are willing to work and to help incorporate the needs of bog turtles into already existing conservation programs.
The point of this meeting is to examine issues facing bog turtles and their habitat. The following, in my opinion, are the current focal points of the workshop. Today we need to set the stage to assure the following:
control succession and restore key wetlands on an as need basis
establish and protect dispersal corridors between sites
educate the general public
There is nothing particular in the life history of the bog turtle that makes it a candidate for its own extinction other than a restricted range, the proximity of its population centers to east coast urban sprawl, and specific habitat requirements. Like other turtles it is slow to mature, and being small it produces only limited number of eggs per year. Individual turtles can live their entire lives in small isolated wetlands which they do not leave even for egg laying. The turtles can be long lived (up to 50 years or more) so well established females could produce as many as a hundred young in their life time. Bog turtles are not diet specific. These turtles are neither aquatic nor terrestrial and they go about their lives in the narrow in-between world where terrestrial wood land turtles (box and wood) and aquatic species (painted turtles, sliders, etc.) cannot make a living. Telemetry and mark recapture studies show individual turtles have very precise areas of specific wetlands they occupy and that they use the same areas season after season. Protection of the turtle is rather straight forward: protect the site and the habitat and the turtles do well. Unfortunately the habitat itself is what is vulnerable and the plight of the bog turtle is but one symptom of the fate of a declining, once wide-spread, wetland system. The agents responsible are all the result of human activities-- exotic plant invasions, increased nutrient loads from runoff, uncontrolled succession, land draining and other alterations, and changes in the local hydrology. The turtles cope quite well when these factors are kept in check, but many sites now face multiple and simultaneous assaults from these man-induced problems.
I don’t know how many of you remember the Top of the Hill Pub and Grill in northern Carroll County, but out behind where it stood was an impressive wetland full of bog turtles. The grill part had not been functional for at least a decade and the place burned down about 15 years back. If you really have a good memory the same site once supported the Curl up and Dye Hair Salon. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment you are standing out behind the Pub and Grill . You really need to use your imagination. Lets pretend its 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. The Chesapeake Bay has not yet formed and the vegetation is similar to what you would now see in Vermont or Western Maryland. Man has not yet arrived in North America so you are obviously just visiting.
Large Pleistocene mammals graze on the hillsides and the landscape, because of a multitude of browsers and grazers, is very open and park like. The species all look somewhat familiar. There are camels, tapirs, horses, giant beavers, and you spot mastodons and giant ground sloths which you recognize from books. In the millennia that follow, these creatures will all be eliminated by pre-Columbian man. The bison and elk which remain will in turn be killed off by European firearms. As dramatic as this world appears, it differs little from what was to be seen from behind the Pub and Grill in the mid-1900s. The rolling Piedmont landscape is the same and the low stream terrace wetland is still in the right spot. The vegetation which was kept in check by the extinct Pleistocene mammals, and later by the bison and elk, in modern times was grazed by dairy cows. From the bog turtle’s perspective little changed from this Pleistocene setting to that seen up to the second half of the 1900s. The Chesapeake Bay, which had been present for the last 15,000 or so years, by the mid-1900s had been crossed by both bridges and tunnels. It was in this latter period when our turtle began to decline in both distribution and abundance. Now lets take our hand off the fast forward button. It is the last 50 years that have taken the real toll on bog turtles.
Corresponding with the loss of the Pub and Grill, northern Carroll County gradually shifted from rural farmlands to suburban trophy housing. Interstate-bound refrigerated trucks could transport milk long distances to processing plants, so it was no longer necessary to keep dairy herds in the proximity of large metropolitan areas. With a geographic shift of the dairy industry the last of the agents responsible for keeping the wetlands open disappeared.
With the houses came dogs, children, and artificially supported populations of raccoons and other mammals which prospered because of open garbage cans and other man-induced food sources. Household wells tapped the perched water tables which fed the springs in the wetlands below, and runoff from lawns, driveways and storm drains became a double- edged disaster. This runoff flushed silt, fertilizers, and pesticides into the wetlands, while the water which normally would have found its way into the ground no longer recharged the water table. The ungrazed wetlands shifted to alder and red maple thickets, and as the trees grew they took water from the wetland soils. On summer days thousands of gallons of water were sucked from the soils through transpiration. The soils, now drying because of the reduced flow of natural springs and the abundance of moisture robbing trees, could now support only upland vegetation. Over time the wetland site was unable to provide habitat for the plants and animals that had persisted in this and other scattered isolated pockets since the late Pleistocene.
Some farmers held on to their lands, changing crops as the economy of agriculture shifted. Lands good for pasture were too wet for crops and were drained. Children inheriting farm lands from parents had grown up seeing the minimal rewards for hard farm work. Even those wishing to retain family property were unable to do so because of inheritance taxes, and a changing tax base on land marked for development. New highways and interstate systems started in the 1950s allowed people working in large metropolitan areas access to rural America. As the road system spread so did people. The American dream of living in a rural setting became obtainable for middle income citizens. Farmlands were divided, sold, and subdivided. Maryland’s population doubled, and then doubled again. Because of the expanding highway system people could easily live 30 or 50 miles from downtown work sites and commute to their jobs in less time than their parents spent riding buses and street cars within the cities. Rural land values rose, followed by more subdivisions, more people, and wider roads. Small two lane roads of the 1930s and 40s were widened to accommodate the commuters traveling at faster and faster speeds necessitated by growing distances. Cars no longer stopped at the Top of the Hill Pub and Grill, and the wider roads expanded further across the stream terraces that they originally followed.
The sites the bog turtles lived in were not randomly distributed, nor were the roads. The wetland sites which survived through the mid-part of the 1900s were covered, bisected and isolated by the ever expanding asphalt. While dad was willing to spend an hour or more commuting to work mom was not. Area schools and strip malls appeared everywhere. But what is the point of living in the country if you have to drive back into the city on weekends. So add to this grocery stores, new car lots, bowling allies, golf courses, and garden centers. And where to put them-- not on the 70 mile an hour limited-access interstates, but along the winding, now widened, traffic light enriched rural roads. Roads originally used by early 20th century residents, roads carved from paths used by early colonists, native Americans and extinct Pleistocene mammals. These were the original paths that connected, followed, and crossed the very stream terraces supporting the isolated open wetlands used by bog turtle.
The problem with bog turtles is that they live in exactly the wrong place. Not only is the center of their limited distribution in the core of one of the most highly prized real estate regions in the world, but the micro distribution is limited to old Pleistocene stream terraces. The turtle’s wetland habitats are along the same valleys where we have focused our corridors of activity. The sites which have survived are all too easily altered by only slight shifts in the local hydrology-- a subsurface hydrology which is vulnerable to everything from lawn and garden care, swimming pool filling, showering, and the runoff of water across lawns and into storm drains. For decades well intended biologists pointed fingers at the pet trade and people taking bog turtles from their wetland homes and placing them on the market as the reason for their decline. This was a problem, but a small one compared to what was actually taking place. It’s not just the loss of wetlands through agriculture and development that is harming bog turtle populations, its our entire way of life. Conservation ethics used to recycle beer cans is an alpha level of commitment where most people can and do participate. Protecting a rather small inconspicuous and remarkably unknown turtle will prove a more telling test of our actual character.
How can we educate the people of Maryland about the plight of the bog turtle? In addition to the media and standard education in formal settings (schools, and colleges, and talks to garden and civic clubs), and informal ones such as information presented in nature centers, zoos and public aquaria, I would focus my efforts in small “town meetings”. This is where the action is. Over drinks in places like the Top of the Hill Pub and Grill one has the opportunity to talk to farmers, and developers, town council members, and the owners of trophy homes in subdivisions. These are the people who will actually need to be involved in the decisions that will make locally run conservation efforts on private lands succeed or fail. We need to get to know these people. And they don’t know how land trusts work, how conservation easements can save them money, or that by protecting a turtle they are enriching the very country side they have adopted as home. How does this turtle actually impact their lives and why should they care? This is the question and this is our audience. This specific audience needs to become the grass-root backers of local bog turtle and wetland conservation programs. And if making them pro-active is too high a standard, at least they can be educated to a level where they won’t go out of their way to destroy the well-intended conservation efforts of their neighbors.
That said, in the long run the bog turtle will not be saved because its the right thing to do, or because we put some esoteric ecological spin on this turtle. Yes it might hold the secrete cure for all forms of the common cold, and saving this turtle is the first step in saving The Bay, but these are arguments which will not rally people to the work that needs to be done. This turtle and its habitats will be secured by a small handful of dedicated people who share a passion for bog turtles. It’s this passion that will be the driving force behind the research and conservation efforts that prove to be effective. So the real question is how do we go about directing and focusing this passion in private landowners so that it helps the turtles?
The background work has been done. We know where the turtles live and what they need. The legal stage has been set, random draining and direct destruction of wetlands is a thing of the past. Conservation is interrelated to major problems people actually care about and are actively trying to mend such as preservation of open spaces and rural farm settings near large metropolitan centers, water quality, and the recharging of ground water. Issues regarding wetland loss need not be tied to a single species, but at the same time species focused conservation can be a good tool in getting people to understand the broader issues. We know what we need to do, we need to educate key landowners and to some extent the general public about the bog turtle. This effort must become their conservation program, not something crammed down their throat by the state or federal government, or a bunch of zealot conservationists. This small turtle needs to be recognized as good indicator of proper stewardship of small privately owned wetlands. These wetlands in turn are a key component of healthy freshwater creeks, streams, and rivers which are critically important to the well being of the Chesapeake Bay. While Marylanders’ love of seafood seems a natural bridge to the protection of source water wetlands, this may be too broad an approach for something like species specific bog turtle conservation. It is far more likely that a direct appeal will grab people’s attention. Someday we will see real estate ads that boast of backyard bog turtle sites as a sales attribute.
In addition to the conservation message, the bog turtle has the advantage of being a very interesting creature and the wetlands on which it depends support a number of plants and animals which also deserve protection. These isolated mini-ecosystems are among the most intriguing species assemblages of any habitat in Maryland. The turtle has an interesting Pleistocene history which is illustrated by its current fragmented distribution. The bog turtle would be a good tool to introduce the effects of past climates and other events as they relate to our local landscape. This turtle, and its habitat, also has a cameo spot in post-European contact history, and the culture, and the agriculture of eastern North America. Its very discovery is related to the Revolutionary War and the earliest studies of natural history originating from the New World. The wide array of interesting plants and animals sharing its wetland habitats should become focal components in teaching biology and biological concepts. The life history of the turtle and its dependence on a specific wetland community provides a good local lesson in the plights of endangered species, the competing interest of development, and the need for protection and management of valued life forms. A fuel for passion can be found in bog turtles.
The bog turtle is a model species for local conservation efforts. It has a limited range, is rare, cute and non-threatening, and can survive and even prosper on very small tracks of private wetlands. Unlike elk and mountain lions they can live amongst us. While this turtle can manage in isolation, the connection of several small wetlands with interconnecting corridors for dispersal is desirable. These wetlands can be managed and if need be restored. While wetland restoration is a noble thing, we will learn in this workshop that this is a very expensive business, and we would benefit from focusing on protecting currently viable, already identified, sites. The protection of the turtle assures the protection of a number of associate wetland specialists. Not only can we reap the benefits of a local, literally backyard program for this and other stressed species in these wetland systems, but the turtle itself has a charm that public relations folks can easily promote.
As an educated society we work hard to save whales, rain forests, and giant pandas. Here in our own back yard is a species which is as endangered as any in the world. Yet unlike migratory cranes, or mountain gorillas, bog turtles need little space and will respond well to site specific conservation. This is not simply a feel good effort, its important. Here is the good part, a few hundred carefully chosen acres will do it. Our nation’s early conservation programs set aside vast tracks of land like Yellowstone National Part to help preserve large roaming animals such as bison and elk. To save bog turtles we do not need such a grandiose program. We can save this species by setting aside single one to three acre sites, and save then one at a time. Its not land acquisition per se that is needed, but the education of landowners to do the right thing. Within this turtle’s range, particularly in Maryland, there are many private and government organizations whose missions are to preserve lands, wetlands, and rare species. We have active land trusts, land easements, and far-sighted programs and organizations actively saving and restoring everything from small wood lots to the Chesapeake Bay. They will work with us. The turtle is now legally protected, enough research has been done, and enough sites inventoried that there is no longer an excuse to prolong addressing the obvious conservation needs of Clemmys muhlenbergii. Coupled with the protection and management of the wetland sites is a strong need for education, so that this battle will need not to be fought again by future generations. The bog turtle could become the flagship species for local wetland conservation. We are talking about old fashion, lump-in-the-throat pride for success from what needs to become a combined effort. I can think of no cause more noble. If a few working ladies in Nevada can help save a squat, warty toad from extinction, I would like to think that the we can muster the effort needed to preserve the future of this small turtle.
I started this off with a quote from the early 1900s and will end with one from the close of that century. Its from The sports shoe company --“Just Do It!.” Oh, and OK you can open your eyes now.
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