Improving Wood Turtle Habitat on Working Lands

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With vibrant orange legs contrasted against a black head and brown shell, few people are likely to forget an encounter with a Wood Turtle. As a rare and very secretive species, most people are unaware that we share the landscape with Wood Turtles, and unfortunately, their populations are in decline and their future is uncertain. Due to the Wood Turtle’s long lifespans (perhaps 80 years or more), slow maturation, and low reproductive rates, their populations are very sensitive any threat on the landscape that can kill adult turtles or degrade nesting habitat.

If you own or manage land with Wood Turtle habitat, especially farms or woodlots in river valleys, you may be able to help improve the prospects for this unique and charismatic species. This post outlines some examples of the best management practices to improve Wood Turtle habitat.

Wood Turtles are very secretive, so despite their bright coloration, many people who share the landscape with Wood Turtles never see one, even when they occur in people’s backyards.

Wood Turtle Range

Wood Turtles are found in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. The Wood Turtle’s range is almost contiguous east of the Great Lakes from northern North Carolina, up through New England, and into southern Quebec and Nova Scotia. Their range extends to the west, north of the Great Lakes to eastern Minnesota.

Wood Turtle Habitat and Threats

Wood Turtles are a river valley specialist that forage on land in river floodplains, especially within 300 to 1000 feet of streams. Meandering valley streams with prominent sand or gravel bars are ideal habitat for Wood Turtles, but because Wood Turtles sometimes spend weeks on end away from water, including in agricultural fields, many are unintentionally crushed by heavy machinery. Additionally, invasive vegetation degrades their habitat and can overrun nest sites, forcing some females to travel greater distances onto land to lay their eggs. And near residential or farm settings, nest predation rates are much greater due to elevated populations of raccoons, skunks, and other mammalian predators.  

Thankfully, there are ways to manage working lands to lessen the impact we have on this unique species and restore Wood Turtle habitat. Managing land for Wood Turtles also reduces pollution into our waterways and improves habitat for other wildlife, including trout, mink, rabbits, and bobcats.

Because Wood Turtles forage extensively in floodplains, including in farm fields, they may be present in fields during harvest or other management activities involving heavy machinery. Some are unintentionally killed, while many others carry the scars of such incidents on their shells.

Turtles on Your Land?

Within the species’ range, Wood Turtles most often occur near meandering streams with pools at least 4-feet deep, a floodplain on both side, and some exposed sand or gravel beaches. Not all of these features need to be present, but when they are, there is a good chance Wood Turtles use the site. This can make a property a good candidate for voluntary conservation programs, such as through the Farm Bill, and landowners sometimes qualify for financial incentives to enroll.

Meandering valley streams with prominent sand and gravel bars represent ideal habitat for Wood Turtles. Riparian buffers, which are strips of land separating fields from rivers (usually planted with trees) can help give Wood Turtles the space they need to forage safely.

Improving Wood Turtle Habitat on Farms and Woodlots

Agricultural and timber lands can support ideal Wood Turtle habitat if managed with conservation in mind. The survival and longevity of adult Wood Turtles are critical, and losing even just one or two per year due to human land use can cause Wood Turtle populations to disappear form an area over time. Landowner participation in Wood Turtle conservation is critical, and we strive to find conservation strategies that balance food and timber production needs with habitat restoration so Wood Turtle populations have a much better shot at survival. 

Agricultural Practices

The following examples of management practices improve Wood Turtle habitat in working landscapes. Many farmers can qualify for financial incentives and technical assistance to incorporate some of these practices into their operations, especially through Farm Bill programs. 

  • Establish or expand unharvested buffers around streams. Buffers can be as small as 35 feet wide to protect water quality, but for Wood Turtles, 300 feet is recommended to provide Wood Turtles with ample foraging habitat. The bottom line here is that any buffer is better than nothing, and the bigger the better when it comes to Wood Turtles. 
  • Conduct mechanized field management near streams during the turtle dormant period (November–March) whenever possible.
  • Use crops that can be harvested in October or that do not require heavy equipment to harvest near streams.
  • Use livestock to keep land open as an alternative to mowing within 300 feet of streams (but keep livestock at least 35 feet from the streams themselves to protect water quality).
  • Use sickle bar mowers and raise blade height >6 inches when possible.
  • Plant shrubs along stream banks to stabilize soils and provide turtles with places to hide.
  • Combat the spread of invasive vegetation such as Japanese knotweed, especially at Wood Turtle nest sites.

Riparian forest buffer in Queen Anne's County, Md.Because Wood Turtles forage extensively on land, it sometimes makes sense to expand existing riparian buffers through new tree plantings.

Forestry Management Practices

Certain forestry practices can improve Wood Turtle habitat, such as patch cuts within 300 feet of streams, but if harvests are conducted near valley streams when Wood Turtles are active on land, some turtles may be crushed by equipment. The best way to avoid killing Wood Turtles during timber harvests within their habitat is to conduct harvests in the late fall or winter, after November 1st and before March 31. Gating and blocking access to, or even discontinuing logging roads in Wood Turtle habitat is recommended to prevent the roads from becoming unsanctioned ATV trails that pose a risk to the species. Additionally, removing invasive trees and shrubs from woodlots is helpful.

Winter-only logging in Wood Turtle habitat is the best way to prevent turtles from being crushed during timber harvests.

Landowner Resources

Conserving Wood Turtle habitat can benefit landowners too. Management practices that help Wood Turtles may also improve agricultural sustainability, and sometimes include financial incentives. For example, Farm Bill programs restore wetlands and provide financial assistance to eligible producers to establish riparian buffers, either permanently or temporarily. These buffers protect agricultural lands from flood damage and reduce erosion. The USDA also provides financial assistance toward practices that protect sensitive habitat.

Streambank and buffer plantings can usually be implemented at no cost to landowners, and in some cases, landowners even qualify for financial incentives.

Many states also have habitat restoration programs that sometimes include financial incentives. In Vermont, River Corridor Easements through the Agency of Natural Resources restore natural stream patterns within a defined corridor and establish a vegetated buffer. Agriculture and channel management aren’t allowed within the buffer, but farmers are compensated for setting aside some land for the corridor and turtles get a safe place to forage and nest.

And even if a property, landowner, or specific practice doesn’t include financial incentives, habitat restoration can often be done at no cost to a landowner. Invasive species control, establishing buffers, and stabilizing streambanks are just a few examples of habitat restoration practices that landowners may not need to pay for, depending on location and funding.

Help Us Conserve Wood Turtle Habitat

The Orianne Society’s Focus is to use science to conserve imperiled species and the landscapes they depend on. Though we think globally, we work strategically in specific landscapes through well-designed initiatives. Within each of these initiatives, we define places and species as conservation priorities and work with a diverse group of partners to achieve conservation success. In Northern New England, Wood Turtle conservation is a major priority of ours, and we need your help to conserve this charismatic species and the landscapes it depends on.

Male Wood Turtle in a stream with very clean water.

We recently partnered with the Connecticut River Conservancy to do outreach to the owners of working lands in the Connecticut River basin of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and to help interested parties enroll in conservation programs to restore Wood Turtle habitat. If you own working lands with potential Wood Turtle habitat and live anywhere in Vermont, or in the Connecticut River valley of New Hampshire or Massachusetts, you are welcome to reach out to us to learn more about Wood Turtle conservation programs. In other areas, contacting your state wildlife agency or your local USDA office is the best way to find out whether improving Wood Turtle habitat on your property makes sense, and what conservation programs might be a good match for your other management priorities. 

Anybody can participate in Wood Turtle conservation, either by donating to organizations that conserve and restore habitat (such as The Orianne Society), volunteering to help with tree plantings in buffers, or by reaching out to state agencies or town conservation commissions about areas where you are concerned about Wood Turtle habitat. Landowners in certain areas are especially important to the protection of Wood Turtles and we at The Orianne Society are more than welcome to point anybody in the right direction.