Authored by Kiley Briggs
Snapping and Painted Turtles are ubiquitous in Vermont. Ask any resident if they’ve seen a Snapping Turtle, and they’ll tell you about the monstrous turtle laying eggs in their garden three years ago or the one they helped cross the road just last week. There are days when almost every log sticking out of a pond or lake is covered in Painted Turtles, and nearly every person in the state has helped one across a road at some point in their lives. A third turtle, and the only other turtle found in all of Vermont’s 14 counties, elicits much less familiarity—the Wood Turtle.
Such was the case when talking to a landowner in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom: an area typified by montane streams, beaver meadows, boreal forests and air that somehow smells fresher than anywhere else in the state. His property, with its meandering brook surrounded by speckled alder swamps and lush hardwood forests, is perfect for Wood Turtles. The landowner was quick to tell stories about Snapping Turtles on his land, and he had seen plenty of “painters” during his life. But when asked about Wood Turtles, I had to describe the animal to him. You would think a turtle with bright orange skin that spends half of the year on land would be hard to miss, but after pausing a moment the landowner responded, “I’ve lived on this river for over 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like that.” An hour later and only 200 meters from his house, I found a fresh set of Wood Turtle tracks exiting the brook and heading into the alder swamps. The turtle, however, was nowhere to be seen.
Wood Turtles are notoriously elusive, which is probably why the landowner had never seen one before. Unlike Painted Turtles, which bask out in the open on sunny perches in the water, Wood Turtles are much more cryptic, choosing basking sites in filtered light under vegetative cover, such as last year’s goldenrod or the branches of a fallen tree. Even people with a well-trained eye are likely to walk right past a Wood Turtle without ever noticing, as I am sure I have done more than once. The Wood Turtle’s cryptic nature, however, is not the only reason most people are unfamiliar with the species—Wood Turtles are also very rare.
Wood Turtles spend the summers on land, ranging thousands of feet from rivers and streams and returning to water periodically until the fall when they return to the water to overwinter. Moving back and forth thousands of feet from rivers and streams is a behavioral trait that puts Wood Turtles at great risk. Most streams suitable for Wood Turtles form valleys that pass through mountains and hills—areas where humans love to build roads. These roads cut right between the water and the turtles’ upland foraging habitat, forcing the turtles to cross roads repeatedly throughout the year and putting them at risk of being struck by vehicles. Many of the Wood Turtle sightings in Vermont are of turtles found crossing roads near a stream, and a large number of those turtles are dead or injured.
Cars kill far more adult Wood Turtles than many populations can sustain, and as a long-lived species with a low reproductive rate, the survival of adult Wood Turtles is critical to population stability. Furthermore, Wood Turtles are very charismatic, and when people find one they often take the turtle home to show their kids, only to release the turtle in their backyard where it will never see another Wood Turtle again or will need to cross many roads in an attempt to return home. There is also a black market for Wood Turtles, and I’ve heard of populations being nearly wiped out by a single person collecting and selling the animals. One study in Connecticut tracked two robust populations of Wood Turtles for 20 years and reported a population decline of 100 percent associated with opening the habitat to recreation, likely due to collection or road mortality. And the disappearance of Wood Turtles in that study is not a unique event. Wood Turtles are in decline throughout their range, including in Vermont.
Despite being found in every Vermont county, Wood Turtles occur in patches with large gaps separating populations. I like to tell people that you can run into a Wood Turtle just about anywhere in the state, but you probably won’t. Whether the species always had a patchy distribution or if that is a result of roads and human encounters is unclear. What we do know, however, is that Wood Turtles are a strong indicator of stream health; where Wood Turtles occur, the environment is in pretty good shape with clean water, high biodiversity and undeveloped uplands. Due to the Wood Turtle’s need for pristine streams, undeveloped uplands and connectivity between the two habitats, protecting habitat for the species benefits a great number of other animals as well, from trout and geese to mink and beaver. Thanks to the Wood Turtle’s secretive nature, we really don’t know much about how large Wood Turtle populations are in Vermont, where many populations are located or whether different populations are genetically isolated from one another.
Understanding where Wood Turtle strongholds are and whether different populations are genetically isolated is imperative for conserving the species, which is what The Orianne Society will address through long-term study of Wood Turtles in the Northeast. This year The Orianne Society launched its Great Northern Forests Initiative and will use the Wood Turtle as a flagship species to achieve conservation across the region. Initially, the project is focused on inventorying turtle populations using visual encounter surveys and environmental DNA sampling (testing the water for Wood Turtle DNA). Knowledge gained during this first field season will be used to prioritize river systems and determine where to focus future Wood Turtle research and land conservation efforts. Through education and outreach efforts we can also help landowners develop management plans that benefit Wood Turtle populations.
While it is very unlikely that any roads are going to be unbuilt, there are some simple things we can do to become better stewards of our natural resources and to lessen the impact we have on Wood Turtle populations. Many fields bordering rivers, for example, are mowed not for profit, but instead just to keep the landscape open. By raising mower blades to six inches in these places and delaying cuts until mid-summer, not only are Wood Turtles far more likely to survive the cut, but grassland nesting birds such as Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows have time to raise their young. Allowing shrubs to grow along stream banks and leaving a vegetated buffer between ploughed fields or pastures and river edges reduces erosion and nutrient runoff into streams, which otherwise degrades habitat quality for Wood Turtles and for countless fish species. Educating people about the harmful effects of moving Wood Turtles out of their habitats, and that helping one across the road is okay but taking one home is not, will result in fewer adult turtles being removed from their populations. These are all simple things, but they require an awareness of Wood Turtles and their needs.
Wood Turtles are one of the rarest turtles in North America; they are considered endangered at a global scale and were recently proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Those of us fortunate enough to see a Wood Turtle in the wild never forget the experience (my first was in 2007 and I get excited every time I find another, without exception). Upon finding our first Wood Turtle during the Vermont field season, Orianne Society CEO Chris Jenkins remarked, “This turtle is truly an amazing animal. To be in a spot that’s been conserved by the local community and to see one of these in the wild is just such a special event.” I don’t know anybody who would disagree with Chris’ sentiment. The Wood Turtle may be in decline, but I hope that through collaboration with local communities and individual landowners, we can build a stronger appreciation for the species and develop solutions that ensure Wood Turtles remain an iconic part of the northeastern landscape long into the future.