Great Northern Forests

Northern New England - Kiley Briggs

The Great Northern Forests span most of New England and Upstate New York, into southeastern Canada.  Water and woods define the natural character of this region, where lake and river valleys weave between the peaks of the Northern Appalachians, including the Green Mountains and Hudson Highlands.  With heavily forested ridgelines separated by large tracts of open farmland, this region also includes some of the most densely populated cities in North America.  

Once blanketed by trees, this region was heavily deforested to make room for farms through the mid-1800s, and much of the region’s wildlife declined along with their woodland habitat.  Today, after almost a century of gradual reforestation, there is still a thriving farm to market economy and much of the region sits under the canopy of forests once more.  With the return of the forests, some imperiled wildlife species made comebacks as well, but many species, including several rare turtles, continued to decline. Recently, decades of reforestation in the northeast came to an end, and in New York and New England about 45,000 acres of forest are lost every year, putting great strain on family farms and further jeopardizing turtles and other wildlife.

The Orianne Society is working in several focal areas within the Great Northern Forests, including select watersheds in Northern New England and the Hudson-Berkshire Highlands, where we work with state, federal, and non-governmental partners to monitor populations of rare semi-aquatic turtles and restore their habitat in the places most important to their conservation.

Focal Species

Wood, Spotted, Blanding’s, and Bog Turtles are among the rarest turtles in the Northeast. These turtles are also highly secretive, and it is very special to see one in the wild. Each has its own unique lifestyle and habitats, but many of the threats they face are the same. These species spend more time on land than most other turtles, and the rapidly changing landscape has made the time they spend on land much more dangerous. Cars, tractors, predators, and poachers are just some of the threats working against them. These turtles no longer have the space they need, and their remaining habitat is becoming more and more fragmented and separated by growing distances. For these species, every stream counts, every wetland counts, and every turtle counts. Turtle populations and the habitat they depend on are dwindling, and the time to act is now.

Blanding's 📷 Kiley Briggs
Blanding’s Turtle – Kiley Briggs
Much of the northeastern range of this species overlaps with the most developed areas in the northeast, with much of their best remaining habitat limited to areas in the path of suburban expansion.  Blanding’s Turtles can travel great distances over land between wetlands every year, and little nesting habitat remains, so females are attracted to the edges of roads and residential areas to nest.  Protecting large tracts of forested land between wetlands is critical to the survival of this species, as is the creation of new nesting habitat away from hazards such as roads.
Read more about Blanding’s Turtles.
Bog 📷 Pete Oxford
Bog Turtle – Pete Oxford
Bog Turtles are the smallest turtle in North America and inhabit shallow wetlands, especially those dominated by Sphagnum Moss with very loose/muddy soils.  In the north of their range, Bog Turtles are primarily found in bottomland ecosystems, but in the south they are found in mountain hollow wetlands over 1,800 feet in elevation along the Blue Ridge.  Very few populations of Bog Turtles remain, and those that remain may be separated by vast distances.  Overgrowth of vegetation caused by nutrient pollution and invasive plants degrade the habitat of Bog Turtles, many of which may spend their entire lives in a single wetland.
Read more about Bog Turtles.
Spotted 📷 Kevin Stohlgren
Spotted Turtle – Kevin Stohlgren

Shallow wetlands with lots of emergent vegetation are important to Spotted Turtles, but they often travel over land to get from one wetland to another, with vernal pools being a favored foraging habitat.  Invasive plants and poor water quality degrade their habitat, and many are killed on roads as they move between wetlands.

Read more about Spotted Turtles.

Wood Turtle – Kiley Briggs

This river valley turtle overwinters in streams, but spends much of the summer foraging in floodplains and valley foothills.  Many are killed by cars and farm equipment, and conservation of this species depends on restoring habitat and minimizing motor vehicle use within 300-1000 feet of meandering valley streams.

Read more about Wood Turtles.


The Orianne Society’s approach to conservation is based on restoring habitat for priority species within focal landscapes. In the Great Northern Forests, most of our work is centered around two landscapes: Northern New England and the Hudson-Berkshire region. The hardwood forests, rolling hills and mountains, and meandering river valleys that make up most of these landscapes have changed drastically in recent centuries. Although both landscapes are largely forested, wildlife is losing ground, and development is far outpacing conservation. To ensure the future of rare turtles in the Great Northern Forests, The Orianne Society protects and restores habitat using a partnership-based approach.

GNFI Focal Landscapes RESIZED
Hudson River – Verina Waldner

There is only one place in the world where Wood, Spotted, Blanding’s, Box, and Bog Turtles live close to one another; the Hudson-Berkshire Highlands.  This area is rich in reptile and amphibian biodiversity and has large tracts of undeveloped forests, but from the top of some mountains hikers are met with views of the New York City skyline.  Pressure to develop the land is strong, and the need to protect habitat here is great.  

The Hudson-Berkshire region is the only place in the world where Wood, Spotted, Blanding’s, and Bog Turtles share the same landscape. This area spans much of the lower Hudson River Valley and surrounding areas, including temperate forests of northern New Jersey, the mixed wood plains and highlands of western Connecticut and western Massachusetts, and the entire Hudson River drainage of southeastern New York between New York City and Albany. This area is rich in reptile and amphibian biodiversity and has large tracts of undeveloped forests, but from the top of some mountains, hikers are met with views of the New York City skyline. Pressure to develop the land is strong, and the need to protect habitat here is great. This is especially true for Spotted, Wood, Blanding’s, and Bog Turtles, which is why The Orianne Society has launched our Hudson-Berkshire Turtle Conservation Program.

How you can help: A generous donor is helping us launch the Hudson-Berkshire Turtle Conservation Program by matching the funds we raise, including donations from supporters like you. If you care about turtles, protecting open spaces, or restoring wildlife habitat, please consider supporting our efforts by donating today and having your investment in conservation doubled.

The northern hardwood forests that compromise much of Northern New England are marked by transition.  With Oak-Hickory forests to the south and boreal Conifer forests to the north, the biodiversity in this region includes a unique blend of species whose ranges overlap in very few places.  Tucked away in river valleys, the Wood Turtle is quite at home here, but their populations struggle to keep pace with increased traffic and modern farming practices.  

The Orianne Society is working hard to protect and restore Wood Turtle habitat in several focal areas in Northern New England.  The upper Connecticut River Valley, which straddles the Vermont and New Hampshire border, and a part of Vermont known as the “Northeast Kingdom” host several critical sites for Wood Turtle conservation.  Collectively, these areas contain hundreds of miles of Wood Turtle habitat, which may be of even greater importance to the species as climate change threatens their habitat farther south.  Here, we are intensively monitoring populations of Wood Turtles in rural river basins, where we work with landowners to enhance Wood Turtle habitat, especially on private working lands.

Support the launch of our Hudson-Berkshire Turtle Conservation efforts by donating today.


Residential neighborhoods, commercial developments, and highways pose much different problems for wildlife than the farms that replaced forests in earlier times. Increasingly, family farms are playing important roles in wildlife conservation, but one by one those farms are also being paved over. Land being developed today will not return to forest any time soon, and species that never recovered from historical land clearing face greater threats now than ever before.

The pace of change here is remarkably fast and turtles are not known for their speed.  When an adult turtle dies, it may take decades for that turtle to be replaced, so when modern threats kill many turtles each year, their populations cannot keep up.  Their long lifespans, slow growth, and low reproductive rates mean most turtles depend on living in relatively stable environments, and they struggle to cope with new and increasing threats. These threats include:

With the continued loss of forests and farmland to development, wildlife doesn’t just lose habitat, it also loses access to remaining habitat.  Roads and development split the landscape into smaller pieces that are spread farther apart.  For some wildlife, something as small as a bike path can be a barrier to their movement, and very few flightless animals fare well when crossing busy highways.

Agricultural development – Kiley Briggs

Plants introduced from other parts of the world pose a serious threat to native flora and fauna, greatly reducing the space available to native species and limiting food availability to wildlife.  In some cases, invasive shrubs can even choke out forest understories and prevent the regeneration of native trees.  Over 100 invasive plants are known in the northeast, with Japanese Knotweed, Multiflora Rose, and Tree of Heaven being just a few of the most problematic examples.  Invasive animals cause problems too, especially in aquatic systems where introduced fish and mollusks outcompete native species for food and other resources.

Wood Turtle navigating invasive shrubs – Kiley Briggs

In addition to the habitat fragmentation caused by roads, vehicles on roads strike and kill animals.  As more roads are built, existing roads get larger, speed limits go up, and traffic volumes increase; the roadkill issue becomes worse.  Where roads cross small streams, culverts can block the upstream movement of fish and other wildlife, forcing animals such as turtles to cross busy highways.

Wood Turtle crossing a road – Screenshot from Great Northern Turtle

Nutrient runoff from farms and urban areas, soil erosion, and increased water temperatures all degrade aquatic environments.  These problems result in the direct decline of many aquatic species, including turtles, and can also cause toxic algal blooms, which are a direct threat to public health.

Eroding streambank – Kiley Briggs

Conservation in Action

Large tracts of forested land and critical habitat for imperiled turtles lay within sight of cityscapes in parts of the Great Northern Forests, and even in remote areas, the pressure to develop more land is high.  To conserve critical habitat for turtles in this region, The Orianne Society works with partners to identify opportunities to protect and restore habitat in the places most critical to species in need. Sometimes that means weaving habitat restoration for turtles into other conservation efforts. After homing in on the most urgent threats to turtles in target areas, we use a strategic approach to protect and restore habitat to ensure the future of these important species. A few examples of how we approach conservation action in the Great Northern Forests are outlined below:

Private landowners are key to turtle conservation. Most people like turtles, and often just need guidance on how to improve habitat on their land. When we find interested landowners, especially farmers with critical habitat, we will work with them to find ways to balance turtle conservation with their other land use goals. This model has worked well in New England, and we will soon be doing similar work as part of the Hudson-Berkshire Turtle Conservation Program.

Mel, Wood Turtle and landowner family – Kiley Briggs

Wetlands are an integral part of the habitat for Wood, Blanding’s, Spotted, and Bog Turtles.  Many wetlands were drained for agriculture and development, and remaining wetlands are threatened by pollution and invasive plants, so restoring wetlands is an important part of turtle conservation. The Orianne Society works closely with wetland restoration biologists to steer them towards critical turtle habitat and find ways to weave turtle conservation into existing restoration projects. Restoring native plant communities, plugging drainage ditches, and planting shrubby buffers around wetlands are a few examples of ways turtle habitat can be improved.

Restoration planting – Kiley Briggs

Finding the best strategies to protect turtle populations depends on knowing where critical habitat is located, how turtles use that habitat, and what threats they encounter on a site-by-site basis. The Orianne Society uses many methods to monitor turtle populations, including radio telemetry and GPS, population and habitat assessments, and game camera monitoring. Results from these efforts are used to identify site-specific management and land protection priorities to protect turtles and ensure their future.

Winter telemetry – Mel Lohrer

The Orianne Society partners with wildlife agencies and other non-profit organizations in the northeast to help identify critical turtle habitat and prioritize conservation projects in those areas. Spreading conservation dollars and efforts across too broad an area might not change the long-term outlook of any single turtle population, but by targeting resources to the places most important to turtles, identifying the most urgent problems in those areas, and prioritizing conservation actions, we can secure the future of the turtles we strive to protect in the most important places for each species.

Consulting a map for turtle conservation projects. – Heidi Hall

Turtles need space between their aquatic habitats and human activity, and in the case of Wood Turtles in river valley settings, what they need are “riparian buffers”. Riparian buffers are strips of land planted with trees and shrubs that separate rivers from farm fields. These buffers provide habitat for many wildlife species, and also help clean the water, reduce erosion, and improve recreational opportunities (swimming, fishing, etc). In our focal areas, we look for opportunities to establish or expand buffers, and then work with partners to put trees in the ground.

Working with partners on riparian restoration – Kiley Briggs