Creating a Spotted Turtle Conservation Plan

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A pair of Spotted Turtles from South Carolina’s low country – Houston Chandler

As discussed in recent entries, we have now been working on Spotted Turtle conservation projects for almost 10 years. A large portion of this work has been part of a large, multi-state effort to create a conservation plan for Spotted Turtle populations in the eastern United States. This effort was led by the Spotted Turtle Working Group, which is composed of almost 40 turtle biologists representing a wide variety of government agencies, universities, and NGOs.

The Orianne Society began working on the planning for this project all the way back in 2017. We then completed multiple seasons of fieldwork (2018, 2019, and 2020), mostly aimed at surveying potentially suitable habitat for Spotted Turtle populations. Spotted Turtles proved challenging to find throughout Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, but we got to visit some of the nicest wetland habitats remaining in these states. All of our survey efforts were rewarded with documentation of several previously unknown Spotted Turtle populations, including a couple of county records. While we were conducting surveys in the southeast, other members of the team were using the same methodologies to survey for turtles in states from North Carolina to Maine. Others were gathering occurrence data for Spotted Turtles and compiling natural history information that is key to writing a successful conservation plan. All of these data were then used to conduct a suite of analyses aimed at informing both the status and future conservation for one of the prettiest turtles in North America.  

The final assessment and conservation plan was recently completed and made available to the public. This nearly 300-page document is a comprehensive look at Spotted Turtle ecology, status, threats, and future management. The conservation plan is broken down into six sections that cover various aspects of the project. Part I discusses Spotted Turtle ecology and threats based on a summary of available research. Part II looks at the distribution of the species based on the compiled occurrence data and delineations of potentially suitable habitat. Part III covers the results of the standardized population assessments conducted as part of this project. Part IV evaluates some of the potential effects of future threats (e.g., climate and land use change) on population viability. Part V proposes a spatially explicit Conservation Area Network that uses data collected during the project to identify high-priority sites for Spotted Turtle conservation. Part VI lays out the Conservation Action Plan for Spotted Turtles. This is the most important part of the document and is designed to conserve representative and resilient, self-sustaining populations throughout the eastern United States.

Here are a few examples of the great work produced by this large collaborative effort. A total of 11,957 Spotted Turtle occurrence records were compiled from existing databases and current survey work. These records helped to delineate 2,351 sites that contained over 769,000 ha of potential Spotted Turtle habitat. As part of this project, 309 sites were sampled across 17 states, accounting for almost 32,000 trap nights of survey effort. These surveys recorded 3,399 unique Spotted Turtle captures. The standardized survey data were then used to evaluate the relationship between landscape characteristics and Spotted Turtle abundance. The Conservation Area Network included 15% of all identified sites and identified areas that composed core habitat, areas where more sampling was needed, and areas where management opportunities were available. Finally, the Conservation Action Plan laid out five main objectives to maintain Spotted Turtle populations: 1) no net loss of core habitat, 2) reduce major threats, 3) maintain adaptive capacity of high-priority populations, 4) address current data gaps, and 5) continue the collaborative framework developed during this project.

Checking traps while surveying for Spotted Turtles – Houston Chandler

Spotted Turtles have been the focus of increased conservation concern in recent years for a variety of reasons, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon decide whether the species deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act. Regardless of the outcome of that process, the incredible work that has been done in recent years and the framework that has been laid out within this conservation plan provides numerous opportunities to take meaningful management and conservation actions for Spotted Turtles in the coming years.

The full conservation plan is available here.