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Rare Vermont turtles found threatened

Rare Vermont turtles found threatened

Two rare Vermont turtles may qualify for listing as nationally endangered species, federal fish and wildlife officials have found, a step that could bring more protection for them plus the streams they live in, according to a group seeking the designation.

The wood turtle has been hurt enough to potentially justify being classified as a federally endangered species, U.S. Fish and Wildlife said in an initial 90-day finding.

“Wood turtles are dying out mostly because people are degrading the waterways where they live,” said Mollie Matteson, a scientist with the Center for Biodiversity in Richmond.

A petition the center filed for an endangered designation for that turtle contained sufficient information to warrant further consideration, federal fish and wildlife officials said.

Increased recognition of the fragile status of that turtle in the wild would be a plus for safeguarding the quality critical habitat,to include various water bodies they inhabit, Matteson said.

“The streams and rivers used by wood turtles are important for people too, for recreation and as a water supply,” Matteson said. “Endangered species protection for this turtle will help protect these essential areas from destruction,” she said.

Earlier this year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife also concluded that the spotted turtle (even more rare than the wood turtle) may qualify for federal endangered species protection.

Living in a few places in the state, the spotted turtle is currently listed as state-endangered in Vermont. Having lost half its historic habitat, the population of that turtle has been drastically reduced throughout its range, said Collette Adkins, a biologist and attorney for the biodiversity center.

“The spotted turtle has likely suffered a 50 percent overall reduction in population size, with much of this loss irreversible because of habitat loss,” she said. Spotted turtles (small, black with yellow spots) in particular need high-quality wetlands with clean, clear water, a soft bottom with aquatic plants and/or emergent vegetation, she said.

Adkins cited a new report from the Endangered Species Coalition (a national network of organizations that works to strengthen rare species protections) that identified the spotted turtle as being among top 10 species in the country most threatened by habitat loss. The report encourages remedial steps such as the addition of crossings with signs and/or lower speed limits on roads near their wetlands.

The wood turtles (more common than the spotted turtle yet still rare and measuring seven to nine inches) have been sighted in recent years in every county, according to the Vermont Amphibian Atlas.

Among the many areas they live in, they frequent adjoining wetland complexes in the Lake Champlain basin and need those larger areas of marshland, according to state environmental officials. Where development has impinged on natural turtle habitat, they have been left with smaller pieces of land to find marshes, streams and vernal pools required for survival, Adkins said.

As a result, wood turtles have been left with many roads to cross — for example, when coming out of hibernation in the spring, she said.

“As its habitat gets fragmented … there is a higher risk of getting hit by a car,” Adkins said of the trend towards a reduction in the size of parcels of land they prefer.

Being a species of special concern in the state, wood turtles now receive some protection under the scientific collection permit process, according to Steve Parren, a Vermont Fish and Wildlife Service bioglist. The endangered spotted turtle and the threatened spiny softshell are protected from collection by the state endangered species law.

When he (or others) do any work with threatened turtles, Parren must get a permit. In a project for spiny softshell this fall, he led efforts to remove some of the vegetation on beaches on Lake Champlain such as the one at North Hero State Park, where that turtle and others lay eggs.

“Because so much of the Lake Champlain shoreline is now developed, the few large nesting beaches I manage are very important and (I) try to keep them available for the turtles,” Parren said after working in North Hero.

Parren uses fencing and signage to protect the nesting beaches. Wire mesh is also used to keep animals from digging up the eggs, he said. In more natural areas, ice, wind and waves can help refresh sites, he noted. However, if they didn’t remove vegetation each year, it would tend to mat over the beach sites and make it harder for the turtles to get to the soil to lay their eggs. Work is done based on a recovery plan that calls for protecting and improving spiny softshell habitat.

In the central part of the state, meanwhile, Mark Powell, a Worcester naturalist, has helped document declining populations of wood turtle. Female wood turtles are the type most likely to wander afar in search of habitat and most likely to get hit by cars, he said.

Tree planting or other riparian buffer work that groups do along rivers can help the wood turtle in areas where their numbers are so low that they may be facing elimination, Powell noted.

Federal protection for the wood turtle as endangered could bring a designation of critical habitat in the face of the breakup and loss of large tracts of land needed for reproduction, according to Adkins of the biodiversity center.

Wood turtles have to contend with other threats as well, such as being taken from the wild and sold on the illegal pet market, she said. “Wood turtles are particularly prized in the pet industry,” Adkins said, noting their handsome features that include big dark eyes and reddish orange markings.

In a report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, she cited a number of turtle poaching cases to illustrare the threat from illegal trade. Among them, in late summer an Illinois man was fined $40,000 and sentenced to jail for attempting to purchase 100 wood turtles taken from the wild, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Poaching has a significant negative impact on wood turtle populations, officials said in a release.

Urbanization (to include dam construction) and poor farm practices such as the use of pesticides have helped leave the wood turtle isolated, said Matteson, the biodiveristy center scientist. Those factors have reduced their chance for recovery in areas where their numbers have dropped dramatically, she said.

Near more urban areas, wood turtles often must go far from their original habitat to find nesting sites and are more likely to get hit by vehicles or collected as pets, Adkins said in her report to federal fish and wildlife officials. The center’s petition has gone to full status review and is still in the early stages.

In the report, she referred to past studies by Parren, the state wildlife biologist, and his observations of injuries to wood turtles (missing limbs and tails, shell damage), suggesting that mower strikes were a likely cause. He concluded that the future of wood turtles has been threatened by their tendency to move long distances and come in contact with farm equipment and road traffic, she noted.

In terms of ill effects to habitat and ecology, damage can be seen alongside some streams, when they are made to flow in a confined channel, Adkins said. When a stream is channelized, habitat nearby can be damaged by things like poor forestry practices, she said.

“Timber harvesting that goes right up to a river bank (and would cause erosion), that would be a habitat threat,” Adkins said. It’s the kind of habitat damage that could be limited by an endangered species designation.

Aside from Vermont, Wood turtles are found in 16 other states (mostly in the northeast). The spotted is found in 19 other states, also primarily in the east and as far south as Florida.

The spotted turtle received some initial regional protection from trading in March 2013, when it was listed as a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a pact signed by 177 countries.