With turtles' safety assured, Hampstead Bypass OK'd

Carroll to reserve space for endangered species

May 01, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

It took almost seven years of study - in which scientists analyzed the DNA and followed the migratory patterns of bog turtles with radio monitors - but the federal government has concluded that the tiny reptile and the highway can live together, after all.

Work on the $48 million Hampstead Bypass, the No. 1 transportation priority in one of the region's fastest-growing counties, was delayed in 1998 when two of the rare turtles were discovered crawling in the muck near the northern end of the road's proposed route.

With an estimated 11,000 remaining, the bog turtle is classified as endangered, meaning that roadwork has to stop when one is discovered. Extensive studies had to be done to ensure that the six-mile bypass, designed to relieve congestion on the Carroll County town's Main Street, wouldn't further endanger the species.

The county learned this week that it had won final approval for the project from federal and state officials after promising to set aside a permanent, roadside habitat for the creature at a location they want to keep secret to avoid drawing poachers.

"We are building a turtle-friendly road," said Hampstead Mayor Haven N. Shoemaker Jr.

The turtle has been badly stressed by the loss of its soggy habitat and its appeal to exotic pet owners.

"These are among the smallest turtles and are so unique for beauty and rarity," said Eli Bryant-Cavazos, amphibian collection manager at the Baltimore Zoo, which has several bog turtles living on its grounds.

The turtle is credited in the legend of a Native American tribe with bringing people to these shores.

"This turtle was once a giant that our people rode on the seas to get here. Once we got here, the turtle reduced its size and populated so that it could live amongst us. That is the story we tell our children," said Charles Thomas, tribal secretary for Ani-Stohini/Unami American Indian Nation, a group that established the Save the Bog Turtle Foundation.

"Everything in nature eats the bog turtle," he said. "They have enough to deal with to survive without getting mankind involved in the process."

The creatures have brown or black shells and bright orange markings on their heads. They typically weigh about a pound, grow to about 4 inches in length and prefer life in a marshy meadow or muddy fen and a diet of aquatic insects and small plant material. Undisturbed they can live as long as 50 years.

Bog turtles have been found as far north as New England and as far south as northern Georgia.

"They live in a very limited habitat and if that is gone, so are they," said Bryant-Cavazos.

When the turtles were discovered on the bypass route, one Carroll official called for turning them into soup, and another wondered why the federal government was requiring the county to outdo nature in providing a safe turtle habitat.

"There is all this fuss about protecting a turtle when we have humans killed on crowded roadways," then-Commissioner Donald I. Dell said three years ago when the delays seemed endless. "Are we going to make humans extinct so we can save turtles?"

The required biological assessment was undertaken soon after the turtles were discovered. Scientists placed radio transmitters on the shells of some turtles and monitored them as they migrated from one meadow to another. Researchers also tested turtle DNA to determine if different meadow populations were breeding with each other and found the gene pools were mixing - a sign of biological strength.

Tim Hoen, a biophysics researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, was hired to survey the bog turtle population in Maryland and surrounding states. The turtle faces long odds, in part because of its congeniality, he said.

"They bring as much as $1,000 apiece because they are rare and quite personable as pets," Hoen said. "They will come right to you, if you feed them. Collectors and breeders want them."

For that reason, the exact location of the Hampstead habitat is closely guarded.

The federal government and State Highway Administration have accepted Hampstead's plan to protect and maintain a portion of the animal's habitat indefinitely. All the project needs now is funding, and that is forthcoming, said Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of Carroll's legislative delegation.

"I think we will be advertising for construction bids in the spring of 2005," Haines said. "This road is going to happen."

State officials said yesterday that they could not estimate what costs the environmental assessment has added to the project without delving into several consultant files.

"You are talking about planning costs over about 15 years," said Kellie Boulware, SHA spokeswoman.

Carroll County must move forward within five years or it could have to redo the environmental study - a prospect no one wants.

"We have had long years of delay, but we will have a road that protects a habitat and everybody will walk away happy," said Ken Decker, Hampstead town manager.

Hoen called the protection plan an asset that other areas should emulate.

"I know this delay has been painful to commuters, but it was the right thing to do," Hoen said. "It is better, smarter planning for the environment. The more biodiversity we lose, the more it will hurt people.

"If you are going to save the animal, then you have to save its habitat," Hoen said.

In retrospect, even former Commissioner Dell, a lifelong farmer, said yesterday that protecting the species was a good idea.

"It was frustrating at the time because there was no end to the things that kept popping up and getting in the way of the bypass," he said. "I don't know if I have ever seen one of those little turtles, but if they were in danger, this was worth the wait."

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