Categorized | Imperiled Wildlife

Saving America’s smallest turtle

Bog Turtle

Bog Turtle, Scienceray

Programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wetlands Reserve Program rely on voluntary conservation measures, providing financial support to private landowner’s wetlands restoration and conservation projects.   The Federal government is able to obtain conservation easements with landowners, and provides cost-share payments for wetland rehabilitation practices and the implementation of conservation measures, like setting up fences around identified habitat.  The hope of making a small profit can do a lot to convince a cost-conscious landowner to take the steps necessary to protect endangered species on their property, demonstrating the great potential of incentives in species recovery on private lands.

Why is this important?

Because the majority of America’s endangered species depend on private land for their survival; indeed, private land comprises 80 percent of threatened and endangered species habitat (Crouse et al. 2002).  What’s more, most of these species need active habitat restoration and management, and not just protection, in order to thrive.  Consider the threatened bog turtle, America’s most diminutive turtle.

Infant bog turtle, from

Bog turtle distribution map

The bog turtle is found from Maryland to New York in small isolated wetlands at the headwaters of the region’s streams and rivers (see distribution map on the left).  We tried to catch up with bog turtles on a recent survey of wetlands in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with expert herpetologists, Jason Tesauro and Brandon Ruhe.

We had high hopes of seeing a lot of bog turtles, but instead found some fresh tracks, and happened upon three box turtles.  According to Jason and Brandon, prime viewing time for bog turtles actually occurs earlier in the spring, and in the fall.  In the summer months, they prefer to retreat into the underbrush and burrow into the mud, living off a healthy diet of slugs and other prey.  It is also possible that we simply did not spot them; wetland meadows, sunny but moist, are optimal habitat, but over the course of the years bog turtle habitats have turned into overly dense thickets often consisting of invasive plants – the dense vegetation made our search more difficult.

Example of agriculture-related development near bog turtle habitat.

Nearby agricultural activity and development has resulted in secondary impacts, most notably nutrient loading.  An enriched soil mineral content is a haven for invasive plants and may have caused the unnaturally productive growth of certain native plants, like maple trees, triggering succession and disrupting turtle microhabitats.  In stark contrast to what perfect turtle habitat should look like – low-lying vegetation, soft wet soil and plenty of sun exposure – some of the conservation easements we visited were grown over with tall grasses, invasive trees and woody thickets.  The disappearance of traditional or prehistoric grazers (bison, elk and mastodon) means that these turtles’ best hope is habitat protection and controlled grazing by farm animals like cows, goats and sheep, combined with the eradication of invasive species.  And since 95% of bog turtle habitat lies within private properties, landowner incentives and active management are crucial to bog turtle recovery efforts.

Conservation easement boundary indicator issued by the USDA on the first private property we visited.

Ideal nesting habitat for bog turtles consists of low-lying tussocks of grass, supported by a bed of soft mud.

Jake picking his way through cattails, ferns, sedges, rose bushes and skunk cabbage – a textbook example of overrun habitat.

In our conversations with Jason and Brandon, it became rapidly apparent that not only are bog turtles highly conservation-reliant, but our main tool for protection is the USDA Wetlands Reserve Program.  This program is critical to providing the funding to eradicate invasive plants, manage herds of grazers and protect and restore wetland hydrology in dozens of wetlands throughout Pennsylvania that are critical to the turtle’s survival.

We were lucky enough to find turtle tracks on this visit, but if we transition towards and strengthen voluntary active management measures to rehabilitate this conservation-reliant species’ habitat, maybe we’ll actually see some turtles next time we visit these swamps.

Bog turtle tracks, but no bog turtles this time around!

Jason Tesauro is the owner of Jason Tesauro Consulting; Brandon Ruhe is a co-founder of MACHAC and Aqua-Terra Environmental Ltd.  Both are United States Fish and Wildlife Service Qualified Bog Turtle Surveyors.

Co-authored with Jake Li and Tim Male.

DT Crouse, LA Mehrhoff, MJ Parkin, DR Elam, LY Chen. 2002. Endangered Species Recovery and the SCB Report: A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Perspective. Ecological Applications 12: 719-723.

This post was written by:

- who has written 5 posts on dotWild.

Katherine Eshel is the Endangered Species Policy Intern for Defenders of Wildlife. Katherine works on research and writing projects for various endangered species policy issues, including current regulatory reform.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.