The expansive meadow I was walking through was bright with spring wildflowers. In the stream native brook trout scooted over clean gravel. Wild turkeys strutted along a distant ridge. Red-winged blackbirds caroled from swaying cattails.
And wood turtles foraged in high grass. Some were pushing eight inches in length.
Their carapaces, ornate with pyramids flecked yellow and ringed with intricate spiderweb patterns, looked like they’d been carved from black walnut. Legs and necks were splashed with orange, plastrons blotched with black and gold.
Several of these animals might have been here for 70 years.
Wood turtles, spottily distributed from the Lake States to the Maritimes and south to Iowa and Virginia, are endangered in fact if not by federal decree. They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 15 years. Their survival strategy is longevity, not fecundity. Never is there a “harvestable surplus.”
Unlike abundant painted turtles which can escape predators by diving off logs and swimming away, wood turtles spend most of the warm months on land. People unfamiliar with turtles and state laws pick them up and take them home. Poachers gather whole populations and sell them.
On the domestic black market poached wood turtles bring about $400 each, but these days most are smuggled out of the country and sold overseas for much higher prices.
Especially galling to wood-turtle managers is that after they’ve painstakingly restored habitat and rebuilt populations, these strongholds become prime targets for poachers.
Dr. Michael Jones of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) offers this: “We need a better, more coordinated approach to the illegal trade, much stronger disincentives.”
Because the species isn’t federally listed as threatened or endangered the only thing inconveniencing poachers is a patchwork of state laws. If they collect wood turtles in, say, Pennsylvania and take them to, say, Florida without the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) apprehending them for transporting illegally taken wildlife across state lines (a Lacey Act violation), they’re probably home free. The burden of proof is on the feds.
With the wood turtle’s closest relative, the bog turtle, the burden of proof is on the possessor. The bog turtle is federally endangered, and anyone caught with one in the U.S. or its territories must produce a permit or get busted.
The wood turtles I saw foraging in the meadow are there because the public isn’t.
The meadow is part of a sanctuary I’ve been involved with that’s devoted strictly to wildlife, not recreation.
Artist, naturalist and writer David Carroll, who discovered our wood-turtle population and convinced us to purchase the meadow, fights a never-ending battle with officials, locals and environmental groups pushing to open all wildland for recreation.
“Poaching is a big problem,” Carroll told me. “But inviting the world into wood-turtle habitat is bigger. Whenever you bring in the public wood turtles disappear. People pick them up. Wood turtle populations can’t take that. They can persist if their habitat is protected, but the thing I can’t sell is exclusion of public access. All the decisions are in favor of access and development. Thank God for your sanctuary’s resolute commitment to protect wildlife for wildlife’s sake instead of creating a human playground or theme park, which is what so many ‘conservation areas’ have become.”
Before we purchased the meadow it was hayed several times a year with disk mowers, which diced up everything, wood turtles included.
“When we learned we had wood turtles in large numbers we did away with commercial hay mowing,” says our forester, whom I can’t name because of security protocol. “And that cost me a lot of suffering. Our worker bees who ran the mowing machines wanted to mow. They wanted open farmland. Their vision of habitat didn’t include things like native plants and thickets for birds; it was all ‘brush’ to them. Walk through a wildflower meadow and walk through a recently cut hay lot, and you’ll see two different worlds.”
In order to preserve other meadow-dependent species, we can’t allow natural succession. So we mow only once and in late fall when nectar-producing plants have dropped seeds and wood turtles are moving into the stream to hibernate. Recently the sanctuary has added sand for additional wood-turtle nesting habitat.
Our population is relatively robust. Sometimes you can find five or six wood turtles in one outing — almost unheard of these days. But naturalist Louis Agassiz reported that in Lancaster, Massachusetts, he and friends had “at times collected over one hundred in an afternoon.” The year was 1854. Such has been the species’ range-wide decline.
Skunks and raccoons, proliferating on human garbage, take an enormous toll on wood turtle eggs and hatchlings.
That problem seems to be lessened when ecosystems retain all parts. “This is just anecdotal,” says herpetologist Jim Harding of Michigan State University, “but two years ago I checked wood turtle nests with a couple friends. We had access to a motorboat, so we covered lots of sandbars and saw lots of nests destroyed by raccoons. Those few sandbars where we saw wolf tracks were totally free of raccoon predation. I sure would love to see more wolves move in. Some people think coyotes are good raccoon predators. I haven’t seen any evidence of that. If I were a coyote, I wouldn’t want to tackle an adult raccoon. But wolves are big enough.”
Harding has documented what he calls “ghost wood-turtle populations.” “Sometimes you can go down a stream and see adults,” he says, “and you think they’re doing okay. But you could be seeing the tail end of the story. If they’re not reproducing at a rate to cover their mortality, decline is inevitable. Every time an old breeder is hit by a car, picked up by a kid or chewed up by a dog, that’s minus one, and there may not be enough juveniles coming along to make up for it.”
A Head Start for Wood Turtles
So what’s being done to recover wood turtles?
One tool is “headstarting.” Eggs taken from the wild are incubated. And the hatchlings, fed in captivity, can put on three years’ worth of growth in nine months, thereby becoming much less vulnerable to predators.
But headstarting is extremely labor intensive. Juveniles are started off in groups. Then, in a few weeks, each goes into its own bin. Otherwise they’d bite off legs, toes and tails. It’s not that they’re vicious; it’s just that in the wild they’re always alone and have no instinct to recognize siblings. Anything that moves is potential food.
Harding suspects that just saving eggs from predators and releasing hatchlings may be nearly as effective.
MassWildlife’s Jones sees headstarting as a potential distraction from land conservation and other priorities unless it’s “applied strategically and with sustained effort.”
“It’s easy to conflate different turtle species,” he says. “When headstarting began for northern red-belied cooters [in Plymouth County, Massachusetts] they were at the absolute northern extent of their range and stressed by relatively cool summers.
So headstarting has been a logical way to stabilize that population, especially in the context of our regional warming trend. But that same warming trend is stressing the wood turtle, which depends on coldwater refugia.”
And climate change is producing off-the-chart floods. When they occur in winter they can blast hibernating turtles out of their habitat, especially in streams hardened with rip-rap or revetments and whose floodplains have been developed.
Beyond Postage-Stamp Protection
But wood turtles may be more resilient than managers had thought. Jones grew up on Massachusetts’ north shore. Until three years ago no wood turtle had been seen in his town since the late 19th century. Then a female showed up, digging a nest in someone’s garden. Jones and his colleagues eventually found a dozen wood turtles in the nearby stream. The population had been hanging on under peoples’ noses.
Despite all the threats to wood turtles Jones feels more optimistic about their future than when he started working on them 15 years ago. At least now state resource agencies and the USFWS are paying attention, doing what they can to protect and rebuild existing populations.
MassWildlife and Zoo New England have just launched a joint project to recover wood turtles in eastern Massachusetts where populations have been devastated by development. Turtles will be tracked with radio telemetry to identify urgent management needs as well as opportunities to expand existing populations. There will also be sustained headstarting.
And MassWildlife is the lead agency in a 13-state conservation plan identifying, protecting and enhancing the best remaining wood-turtle habitats.
“Postage-stamp efforts across the whole region don’t work well for this species,” Jones says. “You need to pick a basin and put together a comprehensive conservation strategy. We need to do better about choosing the streams we’re absolutely going to get right. At the same time we should be working on restoration opportunities wherever they arise.
“It would be easier to mobilize partners to conserve these habitats if we could publicize the locations, but we can’t because of poachers. While some of these sites have agriculture, we think a lot of the damage can be undone through better practices.”
If you spend enough time in wood-turtle country, you’ll encounter one of these beautiful animals. Perhaps it will be emerging from hibernation and easing over the bed of an ice-rimmed stream or, later in the season, daintily plucking dandelions and mushrooms. Maybe you’ll come upon a courting pair, the male swinging his head atop the female’s carapace, or a female plodding to a sunny, sandy spot to lay eggs. And if you’re persistent and lucky, you’ll see one stomping its feet and banging its plastron against wet earth to scare up worms.
Cool Green Science readers can help by reporting wood-turtle sightings to state wildlife managers…and to no one else.