Terrapin plan crawls from schools to bay

Turtle: A state program that promoted classroom nurseries to increase the bay's terrapin population has shifted its focus to rebuilding habitats, upsetting some.

January 13, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

State officials have quietly discontinued a popular program that placed baby terrapin turtles in schools - greatly disappointing teachers, students and environmentalists - to focus on protecting and restoring turtle habitats up and down the Chesapeake Bay.

Instead of promoting classroom nurseries, officials with the Department of Natural Resources have launched an ambitious program aimed at encouraging property owners to do away with rocky bulkheads and leave beaches the way the turtles like them best - smooth and sandy.

"We're in a transition away from terrapins in the classroom to mobilizing the public to channel their volunteerism ... into habitat protection," said Howard King, the agency's division director for policy planning and research. "The terrapins in the classroom was good for making young people aware of how they relate to animals, but ... without that habitat, the turtles won't fare well in the future."

King said there was also concern that children might get sick from handling the turtles.

Like most environmental movements, this one is starting out small. About 25 homeowners statewide have signed up to rearrange and replant their waterfront lots to help the terrapins. Every summer, females lay clutches of eggs in shallow sandy nests up and down Maryland's shoreline.

"It is a charge to watch the wildlife," said Jane Hartley, a Chester resident who, with her husband, Bill, tore up the mountainous bulkhead along the backside of their waterfront home about two years ago. Hartley said the project was not cheap, but she said it has been worth the expense to get closer to nature. "The healthier the shoreline, the more wildlife there is to watch," she said.

Still, there are others who lament the end of the terrapin program, which became so popular that Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a well-known turtle fan, established a Terrapin Day. He celebrated the annual releasing of the young reptiles into the wild with schoolchildren at Prospect Bay in June.

"In our eyes, it was a model program," said Duane Wilding, president of the Severn River Association, who wrote a letter to departing DNR Secretary J. Charles Fox last year complaining about the program's demise. "The turtles are such cute little creatures, so it is easy to use them as a sort of a poster child to help out other resources as well."

Wilding said that although a habitat restoration program is much-needed, it won't garner the same attention as the baby terrapins.

"I hope that DNR will rescind its decision," he said. "I would say they should do habitat restoration but raise the turtles as well. ... They should do whatever it takes."

Marguerite Whilden, a DNR program manager for conservation and stewardship, oversaw the launching of the baby terrapin program three years ago. Last year, 18 schools participated. She said she was heartbroken when she found out that the program, the costs of which are mostly covered by schools, had been scrapped.

"You get a turtle and a kid together, and you can't lose," said Whilden, who has shifted her efforts to the habitat restoration and protection program. She acknowledges that the new project could be difficult to sell - a demonstration site has been erected at Horsehead Wetlands Center in Grasonville - because it can be costly. Whilden estimated that the Hartleys spent about $20,000.

"The terrapin program took on a life of its own," Whilden said. "Why ditch a winner?"

But some scientists argue that human interaction with the baby terrapins could affect the long-term health of the entire population. Children could pass viruses to the baby turtles, which, once they are released, could pass the viruses to other turtles. Another concern is that children could contract salmonella from handling the turtles.

Whilden - who is not a scientist but works closely with them - dismisses those arguments.

"I haven't lost a turtle or a kid yet," Whilden said.

Still, for others, the scientific debate and possible health risks to children were enough to discontinue the baby terrapin program, at least for now.

"We need to answer those questions," King said, adding that the popularity of the program was quickly outpacing the state's supply of captive terrapins. King said he could have foreseen a day when he and his staff spent more time settling squabbles between school districts than studying and protecting terrapins.

"We still want to keep the terrapin before the public eye," he said, adding that schoolchildren could be allowed to view the turtles at the Horsehead Wetlands Center. "It may not be as attractive at first [as compared to the school program], ... but these terrapins really tug at the heart."

At St. Mary's Elementary School in Annapolis, fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher Sandy Gateau, whose classroom is filled with aquariums that have no turtles, is desperate for terrapins. She has side-stepped questions about the missing reptiles, hoping that state officials might still show up with a boxful of baby terrapins. Gateau might buy turtles from fishermen to appease pupils and their parents.

"The children are really disappointed," Gateau said of her fifth-graders, who in past years spent weeks measuring and weighing the turtles and charting their growth in notebooks. The school also has a Terrapin Day when pupils dress in green and donate dollar bills to protect the turtles. Last year, pupils raised $900.

"It's a steppingstone to teaching them why we have to take care of the Chesapeake Bay," said Gateau, who dressed as a terrapin for Halloween. "I'm going to have to do something to make these kids happy. ... All I need is those turtles."

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