Plan could put bog turtles on road to safety

Preservation guidelines part of bypass proposal

`Bold effort to protect habitat'

Zoning rules to safeguard endangered species


March 15, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

After delaying for several years a town's effort to build a bypass, the tiny bog turtle might soon help move the project forward.

In fact, town officials insist, the fate of the $40 million Hampstead Bypass and the survival of the one-pound reptiles are intertwined.

"We want the turtle preserved and the road built," said Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker. "The only way to save the turtle is to build the road because the road opens the door to preserving the habitat that is key to preserving the turtle."

That circuitous logic works, said Scott Smith, regional ecologist for the state Department of Natural Resources.

"Normally, I would not see a road protecting an endangered species, but in this case, the town is absolutely right," Smith said. "If the road doesn't go in along with stringent federal guidelines, it will be much more difficult to protect the bog turtle."

Hampstead has sought funding for a bypass to ease congestion on its Main Street, which is Route 30, for more than 40 years. The nearly six-mile road would be built west of town, parallel to Route 30.

The bog turtle, which has a brown or black shell and bright orange markings on its head, inhabits wetlands along the proposed route. The exact location of the habitat has not been disclosed because the endangered species is highly prized on the international black market.

"Their personalities make them great pets," said Smith.

The discovery of the turtles - which are among the world's smallest - delayed the highway project for several years while the state conducted an environmental study that eventually recommended preservation of a core bog turtle habitat, wetlands and a buffer zone.

Hampstead recently created a resource protection overlay zone that says the town will provide "for the protection and conservation of endangered and threatened animal species" by preventing development that would be disruptive.

"The zoning should be a model for any municipality," said Smith.

Timothy Male, senior ecologist at the Center for Conservation Incentives, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, recently wrote to the town commending it "for making such a bold effort to protect habitat."

"I would love to work with you to get the word out about the Hampstead ordinance and what you are doing in terms of turtle conservation in hopes that your model would be used elsewhere in Maryland, Pennsylvania and beyond," Male wrote.

Hampstead also could break the impasse between the State Highway Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal government demanded a $100,000 bond from the state to fund the habitat preservation in perpetuity. The town stepped in with its promise to maintain and buffer a nearly 100-acre area that the endangered species favor.

"It is a matter of keeping an open wetlands," said Decker. "We would work with DNR on a habitat management plan."

The state has yet to review the town's maintenance offer, but is delighted with the concept, said Kellie Boulware, spokeswoman for the highway administration.

"This is definitely something we are willing to discuss with town officials," she said.

Hampstead Mayor Haven N. Shoemaker Jr., who recently discussed the bypass with state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, said the town's efforts have not gone unnoticed.

"We have a highway project that has been neglected for years and years," Shoemaker said. "SHA is fully aware of what we are doing and anything we can do to make their lives easier makes the project more likely."

Decker said the town's environmental victory could help it land the road.

But he added, "If nobody steps in, the bog turtle would probably go away. And, without the bypass, commuters on Route 30 might soon become endangered species too."

Rapid development, pesticides and the draining of wetlands have steadily destroyed the turtles' muddy habitat. Surveys indicate that their numbers have declined about 40 percent since the early 1980s. Fewer than 10,000 of the turtles remain in the 12 states from Massachusetts to Georgia, and Maryland is home to a third of them. Bog turtles can be found in Carroll, Cecil, Baltimore and Harford counties.

"Without human intervention and active habitat management, I doubt the bog turtle would be in this area 20 years from now," Smith said. "We should be good stewards of our natural resources, and that includes species in decline and in low numbers. It is important to make sure they are there for future generations."

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