For the sake of a turtle

November 09, 1994

One of Maryland's shyest, most elusive creatures -- the North American bog turtle, or Clemmys muhlenbergii -- may delay the construction of Carroll County's long-sought Hampstead bypass. State officials told the county's elected leaders last week that the small reptile was recently spotted in a wetland located on the north end of the highway's proposed path. Because of that sighting, transportation officials said they may be forced to design a new route for the $35 million highway to avoid the turtle's habitat.

Cries of outrage have already reverberated throughout the county. Could this lowly, palm-sized reptile further delay the construction of this desperatedly needed thoroughfare, which has already been in the planning and design stages since the 1960s?

Although state officials could not say for certain, they pointed out that the turtle is classified as a "threatened" species. If it is determined that the proposed path would destroy its habitat, which is about one to two acres in size, the road would have to be rerouted at a cost of several hundreds of thousands of dollars and postpone the start of construction several more years.

This little creature has a quite a legacy -- one that we humans ought to respect. Scientists believe the turtle first appeared before the dinosaurs. It thrived after the glacial period when extensive marshlands spread across the northeastern United States.

These swamps began drying out after the Pleistocene Epoch, isolating the widely scattered turtle colonies. Although first seen in 1792 in Lancaster, Pa., muhlenbergii wasn't sighted in Maryland until 1943.

For commuters stuck in Hampstead's rush-hour traffic snarls, the thought of postponing construction of the bypass for this four-inch-long turtle may seem ridiculous. But as a result of spreading suburbia and the destruction of wetlands, this animal is quickly losing its existing habitat. The turtle now lives in about 180 locations in six Maryland counties, but careless treatment of wetlands is eliminating the places it can survive.

If the Hampstead bypass threatens a small wetland that is home to the turtle, it would make sense to bypass the site. Once that wetland is destroyed, the fate of the turtle is certain: It will die. No commuters are likely to die from any delay, although admittedly they may end up driving through Hampstead at a turtle's pace.

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