Bog Turtles Cute, and Disappearing

Through the federal Landowner Incentive Program, New York has expanded a program to get private landowners to protect habitat for certain species. The new beneficiary? Bog turtles, a small, chestnut-colored turtle popular as a pet. Here’s why the turtles need help:

Over the last three decades, bog turtles have disappeared from many of the wetlands they once occupied. The population is estimated at 10,000 to 13,000 in the Northeast, including New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland, and 4,000 to 6,000 in a swatch of Appalachians from Virginia through North Carolina and Tennessee to Georgia. The turtle is listed as federally threatened and endangered or threatened at the state level.

Since about 95 percent of bog turtle habitat is on private land, the turtles and other rare animals, birds and plants that share their niche can’t be saved without the help of private landowners.

Involving private landowners is hardly a new idea, of course. The government has been doing it through the Safe Harbor program for years. (The Landowner Incentive Program is funded by royalties from the outer continental shelf oil and gas extraction. Hmm, do you suppose BP’s Deepwater Horizon well falls into that category?)

But it’s not enough just to get landowners to pledge to preserve habitat, or to buy land to preserve habitat. It must also be managed in the correct way.

Even where [New York] state has tried to protect bog turtles by buying land targeted for development, the creatures may vanish. That’s what happened at a 132-acre site the state bought for a half-million dollars in 1981, about 55 miles northeast of Manhattan.

Back then, the site had about 50 bog turtles. But the state didn’t manage the preserve to keep out invasive plants. Purple loosestrife and giant reed grass crept in, making the marshy meadows too shady and dense with vegetation for bog turtles to thrive. In the last survey, Breisch found only three adults.

That illustrates one of the downfalls of preserving habitat by buying it: If buyers don’t have the resources to also manage the land properly, the goal of protecting endangered species won’t be met.

Restoration is an ongoing learning experience for everyone involved in it. Maybe someday everyone in the world will know exactly what to do. But see yesterday’s post on randomness for another view.

Source: “NY Grant Aims to Save Rare Bog Turtles, Habitat,” by Mary Esch, Associated Press, May 29, 2010