Discovery of rare turtle may stall Route 30 bypass

November 01, 1994|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Sun Staff Writer

A rare turtle discovered near Hampstead may delay work on the Route 30 bypass.

A bog turtle seen in a wetland area at the north end of the proposed bypass route recently was listed as a "threatened" species in Maryland.

The state may be forced to design a new route for the $35 million highway, which has been planned since the 1960s, to avoid the (( turtle's habitat.

Maryland Department of Transportation officials broke the news to Carroll County officials yesterday at their annual meeting at the County Office Building in Westminster.

Del. Richard N. Dixon, a District 5 Democrat, said realigning a highway because of one turtle was ridiculous.

"Somebody may have dropped that turtle off there," he said.

Del. Donald B. Elliott, a District 4B Republican, said officials should consider residents' needs as well as the need to be environmentally responsible. "More importantly, the human being population is increasing," he said.

Sen. Larry E. Haines, a District 5 Republican, summed up the frustration of officials and residents who have been trying for years to persuade transportation officials to allocate money to build the road.

"As slow as we're moving, I think the turtle will have time to get out of the way," he said.

State Highway Administrator Hal Kassoff said designing a new route would delay the bypass at least two years and would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The state has spent about $4 million to plan and design the bypass. It has not allocated money for construction, which means no one is sure when it will be built.

Route 30, which carries traffic from Pennsylvania south to

Interstate 795 in Reisterstown, is jammed during rush hours.

One bog turtle, a small creature with an ebony shell and bright orange blotches on each side of its head, was found in late June or early July in a wetland area in the bypass route.

The turtle was seen at the north end of the proposed route, said Neil J. Pedersen, director of the Office of Planning and Preliminary Engineering in the state transportation department.

Plans call for the bypass to begin south of Hampstead at Wolf Hill Drive and continue almost six miles north, past Greenmount. The state also plans to build a connecting bypass around Manchester.

Scott A. Smith, a nongame-wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, refused to say more specifically where the turtle was seen because he feared people would hunt the reptile.

Bog turtles are worth a lot of money, he said in a phone interview, but he declined to say how much. The turtles are on a "top 10 list" of animals wanted worldwide for the black market pet trade, he said.

The bog turtle -- Clemmys muhlenbergi -- is one of the smallest turtles in the world, measuring 4 inches when fully grown. It is a cousin to the spotted turtle, which also has orange blotches, he said.

The bog turtle has ridges on its shell giving it a sculptured look, while the spotted turtle has a flat shell with yellow spots, Mr. Smith said.

The bog turtle first was discovered in Maryland in 1941 and now is found in four counties -- Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil. It lives in the mud in wet meadows, he said.

The turtle was listed as an endangered species in Maryland in 1972, but was removed from the list 10 years later after a DNR study found bog turtles at almost 180 sites in six counties.

But, a DNR study conducted in 1992 and 1993 found that the population had decreased 43 percent during the previous 15 years because of illegal collection and housing construction. This led officials to request that the bog turtle be placed on the "threatened" species list, which occurred about a week ago, Mr. Smith said.

According to the Maryland Endangered Species Act, a species can be ranked "in need of conservation," "threatened" or "endangered." Endangered is the most serious and means the animal could become extinct in the foreseeable future. Threatened means the animal could become endangered in the foreseeable future.

The law does not define foreseeable future.

The bog turtle near Hampstead was found as part of a routine environmental review of the planned bypass route, Mr. Smith said.

He had looked at a couple of wetland sites along the route, but found they would not interfere with construction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then asked state officials to examine another wetland area of 25 to 30 acres.

After just a few minutes at the privately owned site, which was not listed on state records as a habitat for bog turtles, Mr. Smith said he spotted a bog turtle.

The turtle's habitat covers only 1 to 2 acres of the total wetland area, which is mostly forested, he said.

The proposed bypass route should be shifted to save the turtle's habitat, Mr. Smith said.

"We consider the species to be in trouble," he said.

Hampstead Mayor C. Clinton Becker was frustrated by the potential roadblock. "The longer you wait on the bypass, the more things you're going to find to stop the bypass," he said.

Mr. Kassoff suggested that local elected officials meet this winter for a briefing with state highway and environmental officials to try to determine if the turtle sighting is a legitimate reason to delay the bypass.

"You have every right to question this, [and ask] 'Have we looked at every reasonable alternative?' " he said.

Mr. Pedersen said state highway officials are studying whether changing the bypass route "makes sense."

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