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 the North America. Climb to the top of some mountains, and not a single human structure lies in sight, while others offer views of distant city skylines.
Once blanketed almost entirely under the cover of mixed and hardwood forests, 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 habitat. Today, after more than a century gradual reforestation, the northeast is largely blanketed with trees once more. With the return of the forests, some imperiled wildlife species made comebacks as well. Other species, including several semiterrestrial turtles, continued to decline, and decades of reforestation in the northeast recently came to an end.
The residential neighborhoods, commercial developments, and expanding highways taking the place of forests today pose much different problems for wildlife than the farms from earlier times. More importantly, the land being cleared today will not return to forest any time soon, and species that were still in decline due past land use face even greater threats now. This is especially true for land-dwelling and semi-aquatic turtles, which struggle to cope with new threats.
The Northeastern United States is home to both New York City and Boston, as well as dozens of smaller cities centered mostly in the coastal plains of southeastern New England. This generally urban area has expanded gradually over many decades, with New England and New York losing about 45,000 acres of forest each year. Although the region has a rich agricultural history, farmers are under great strain, and skyrocketing land prices drive many to sell to developers. Similar to the loss of forests, family farms struggle to survive in an increasingly urban landscape.
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.
Turtles are among the most threatened animals in the world. There are only about 360 species of turtle in the world, and over half are threatened with extinction. Every turtle lays its eggs on land, putting them at risk of being hit by cars as they search for nest sites, but species that also disperse and forage on land face even greater threats. In the Northeast there are four semi-aquatic species of particular concern that The Orianne Society works to protect.
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.
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.
Turtle conservation in the northeast can go hand-in-hand with the needs of communities as well, as protecting land from future development ensures there will always be room for wildlife habitat, recreation, and farms. For example, setting aside and planting the land between farm fields and rivers with trees creates habitat for Wood Turtles and other wildlife, stops fertilizer from draining into the water, stabilizes eroding soils, and protects the field from damage caused by intense floods. In the Northeast, The Orianne Society works in several landscapes to monitor rare turtle populations and restore their habitat, partnering with state and federal agencies, other non-profits, and farmers themselves.
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 Orianne Society is working to secure the future of imperiled turtles in this area, which spans much of the lower Hudson River Valley and surrounding landscape, including temperate forests of northern New Jersey, the mixed wood plains and highlands of western Connecticut and southwestern Massachusetts, and the entire Hudson River drainage of southern New York between New York City and Albany. We are in the process of launching a strategic turtle conservation program in this area, and will soon begin widespread population inventories to identify key areas critical to the conservation of imperiled turtles where we will target land conservation efforts, beginning with Wood and Spotted Turtles.
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 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 regional 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 a rural river basins, where we work with landowners to enhance Wood Turtle habitat, especially on private working lands.
None of the threats facing the land, water, and wildlife of the northeast are unique, yet the pace of change here is remarkably fast. Turtles are not known for their speed, and their populations operate on a much slower time scale than humans are used to thinking about. When an adult turtle dies, it may take decades for that turtle to be replaced, so when new threats, such as busy highways, kill many turtles each year, their populations simply 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, which include:
With the continued loss of forests and farmland to development, wildlife doesn’t just lose habitat, it also loses access to habitat that remains. Roads and development split forested habitat into smaller pieces spread farther apart. For some wildlife, something as small as a bike path can be a barrier to their movement, and few flightless animals fare well when crossing busy highways.
Plants introduced from other parts of the world post a serious threat to the northeast’s native flora and fauna, greatly reducing the space available to native plants, 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.
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.
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, and can even cause toxic algal blooms, which are a direct threat to public health.
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 more remote areas, the pressure to develop is high. To conserve critical habitat for imperiled 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. After honing in on the most urgent threats to focal turtle species in target areas, we implement a strategic approach to protect and manage habitat to ensure the future of these important species.
Private landowners are key to the conservation of Wood, Spotted, Blanding’s, and Bog Turtles. People generally like turtles and often just need guidance on how to improve habitat on their land and what resources are available to help them do that. For example, The Orianne Society recently partnered with The Connecticut River Conservancy to do landowner outreach in select watersheds within the Connecticut River basin and help interested landowners enroll in Federal Farm Bill programs to restore Wood Turtle habitat on working lands.
Wetlands are an integral component to the habitat of Wood, Blanding’s, Spotted, and Bog Turtles. Whereas Wood Turtles spend considerable time foraging in floodplains, the other species forage or overwinter in emergent wetlands, vernal pools, scrub/shrub swamps, bogs, beaver meadows, etc. Much of this habitat was drained for agriculture and development, and remaining wetland are threatened by pollution, and invasive plants, so restoring wetlands is critical to turtle conservation. Specifics are on a case-by-case basis, but setting aside habitat along streams (riparian buffers), restoring native vegetation in wetlands, plugging unneeded drainage ditches, and allowing beavers to create new wetland habitat can greatly benefit turtles. The Orianne Society works closely with wetland restoration biologists to steer them towards critical turtle habitat, especially where federal Farm Bill conservation programs can compensate landowners for restoring wetlands on working lands.
Choosing the right strategy or property for habitat restoration often means monitoring the habitat use, movement patterns, or other aspects of a turtle population. For the past four years, The Orianne Society has tracked populations of Wood Turtles in agricultural settings using radio telemetry and GPS loggers to identify site-specific management priorities that will protect Wood Turtles from being killed or injured by heavy equipment. Today, we are in the midst of ramping up those efforts to include inventory and monitoring of other species, including Spotted and Blanding’s Turtles.
The Orianne Society partners with wildlife agencies in the northeast to help identify critical turtle habitat and implement conservation projects in those areas. Recent projects and proposals include regional conservation planning for Blanding’s Turtles in five states, securing funds to do landowner outreach to raise interest in habitat restoration for Wood Turtles in Northern New England, and working with the state of Vermont to help secure funds to identify unknown Spotted Turtle populations and develop new survey methods. In each case, our efforts lead to land protection, invasive species control, nest site restoration, landowner outreach, and other conservation practices, all of which are needed to secure the future of these imperiled species.