Rare species cling to survival in Carroll

Bog turtle among threatened creatures and plants in county

April 23, 2006|By MARINA SARRIS | MARINA SARRIS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Conservationist David Lee grumbles that Marylanders know more about polar bears than about a threatened animal in their own backyard: the bog turtle.

The tiny reptile might be the most well-known of the 39 rare, threatened or endangered species in Carroll County. Several of those species haven't been spotted in years, but bog turtles have been quietly living in marshy areas, their locations kept secret to deter poachers.

Bog turtle enthusiasts hope to spark interest in protecting the areas where turtles live in Maryland and elsewhere, said Lee, executive director of The Tortoise Reserve, a nonprofit conservation organization in North Carolina.

Conservationists and scientists met this year to discuss launching a northeastern version of Project Bog Turtle, a North Carolina-based initiative to protect the turtle and its habitat in the southeastern United States.

Carroll County is home to about a third of Maryland's bog turtle population, with the rest living in small pockets of wetlands in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties, said Glenn Therres, associate director of the Natural Heritage Program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Lee estimated the world population of adult bog turtles at 14,000 to 19,000, with about 1,500 to 2,500 in Maryland.

"You couldn't have a more perfect animal to get people's interest," Lee said. They're cute, harmless, and can live on small, interconnected tracts of spring-fed wetlands, he said.

"They're not that hard to save because they only need 2 or 3 acres, compared to condors or whooping cranes," which require large tracts of land to thrive, Lee said. "This is all very doable."

Turtle homes can be preserved by teaching landowners how to manage their wetlands, using conservation easements and acquiring prime sites, conservationists say.

Bog turtles made local headlines several years ago when they were discovered living in an area designated for the Hampstead bypass, a priority roads project. Their presence held up road planning until officials found a way to redesign the bypass without further endangering them. The state has acquired a bog turtle site to offset the habitat lost to the road project, and is monitoring the area, according to officials involved in the project.

Of the 39 state-protected species in Carroll, the bog turtle is the only one that also enjoys federal protection.

The road delay upset residents, while others decided to champion the little turtle, a longtime denizen of Carroll.

Bog turtles have managed to survive in Carroll for thousands of years, Lee said. Historically, herds of large grazing animals, such as mastodons and later elk and bison, kept vegetation under control so it would not choke the turtle's marshy home. In the previous century, dairy cows performed the same service for the turtles, he said.

But many dairy farms have disappeared, wetlands have become overgrown, and homes and shopping centers have sprouted throughout Carroll and neighboring counties. Subdivisions using well water changed the underground water system. These wells could dry up a turtle habitat a few miles away, Lee said.

Twenty years ago, bog turtles lived on 150 to 180 sites in Maryland, Therres said, but they now can be found on just 90 to 100 sites. Most of those sites are on privately owned land.

Poachers also have taken turtles, which can fetch from hundreds to thousands of dollars in the exotic pet trade, Therres said.

Bog turtles have dark shells about the length of a computer mouse. They have distinctive yellow or orange spots on each side of the head.

The state protects bog turtles through its control of permits in projects such as the Hampstead bypass. It also can sign agreements with private landowners allowing the state to preserve turtle habitat on their land. Maryland can provide financial support to landowners to maintain their property for turtles, if they agree not to change the site for five years afterward, Therres said.

"Certain property owners are proud and excited to have bog turtles on their land and want to do what they can to protect them," said Dave Smith of Mount Airy, an environmental scientist, bog turtle surveyor and board member of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland.

The bog turtle is not the only species that has fallen victim to changing environmental conditions. The rare, threatened and endangered species list for Carroll County contains 29 plants, including a variety of sedges, wild lupine, red milkweed, Canada honeysuckle, ostrich fern, and potato dandelion. Some of the plants have melodious names: the purple fringeless orchid, the whorled mountain-mint, the bashful bulrush, Darlington's spurge, and fameflower, with its delicate purplish bloom.

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