Wood Turtles

Despite their bright orange legs, Wood Turtles can be difficult to spot. - Kiley Briggs

“I’ve lived here for over 50 years, and if there were any orange-legged turtles in the river here I’d know about it”. I’ve heard this line and others like it from people many times, even at places where I know there are Wood Turtles. The fact is, that even in places where Wood Turtles are still somewhat common, they fly under the radar. For that reason, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is when I get to walk a streambank with a landowner and show them this marvelous animal that has lived in their backyard for decades, sometimes longer than the landowner has been alive. 

In the coming weeks, I hope to do this a lot as we kick off our Hudson-Berkshire Turtle Conservation Program in southeastern New York. Our aim this year is to find places where critical habitat for Wood Turtles overlaps with opportunities for habitat restoration and conservation. While I would love to spend all my time in remote areas observing rare turtles in pristine environments, there isn’t a lot I can do in places like that. Instead, I look for the places where nice habitat ends and the need for habitat restoration begins. In places like that, we have an opportunity to build on the nice habitat and secure the future of Wood Turtles in places where they can thrive with a little help.

Juvenile Wood Turtle on a streambank. - Kiley Briggs

Roads and farm fields in particular pose a great threat to Wood Turtles. The species overwinters in valley streams, but they feed on land and travel extensively through river valleys. Those same river valleys are the easiest places to build roads and they also have the best soils for farming. As a result, very few places remain where Wood Turtles can roam the landscape safely, without the risk of being crushed by cars or heavy machinery. Furthermore, invasive plants can easily overrun the turtle’s nesting habitat, and predators that are much more abundant near farms and developed areas can kill or injure the turtles and destroy their nests. The odds are stacked against the Wood Turtle, to say the least, which is why we are doing something about it.

More than anything else, Wood Turtles need space between rivers and human land use. Space where cars, tractors and other motor vehicles do not go. Riparian buffers, as these strips of habitat along rivers are called, provide space for Wood Turtles to feed and nest, but the buffers also create habitat for other wildlife. Riparian buffers also help clean the water by reducing erosion and capturing fertilizer and other pollutants before it gets to the river, cleaning the water and improving fishing and swimming opportunities. Setting aside land for buffers might mean taking some land out of production on a farm, but when 5+ feet of land are lost every year to erosion, it doesn’t take long for a buffer to mean a farmer has MORE land to farm than they would without the buffer.

Male Wood Turtle - Kiley Briggs

In this first stage of our work in southeastern New York, we are just focused on finding the turtles, but the information we collect this year will help us home in on the places where we can have a real impact on Wood Turtle conservation – the places where, with our help, these turtles will still be around 300 years from now. While we collect this essential information, I also have my eyes open for conservation opportunities, and we have already found a couple properties where habitat restoration is a real possibility. Wood Turtle conservation can be a challenging endeavor, but every now and then we get lucky and score an easy win, and sometimes, showing a landowner what they have in their own backyard is all it takes. 

We need your help. Turtles need your help.

A generous donor has agreed to match, dollar for dollar, every donation made
to our Hudson Berkshire Turtle Conservation Program before World Turtle Day on May 23, 2023. By donating to this program, you will double your conservation impact! Your help will allow us to conduct widespread turtle inventories, conduct on-the-ground riparian area restoration efforts on private lands, and identify key areas critical to conservation where we will target land conservation efforts. 

 Donate today to match your conservation dollars. Long live the turtles!

Learn more about Wood Turtles.

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