In a sodden Salem County field, two diminutive dark-brown turtles with distinctive orange head markings squirmed in the hands of scientists who showed them off on Wednesday morning to a crowd of state officials and environmental advocates.
The creatures were bog turtles, a rare species whose status as New Jersey’s official state reptile hasn’t stopped the population statewide from plummeting by more than 50 percent from its peak as development consumes its specialized habitat, roads fragment its range, and farming encroaches on the wetlands where it breeds.
The two turtles, plucked from their marshy habitat on a rainy morning, are among only nine that are known to live at the Salem County site while the statewide population is estimated at about 2,000. In New Jersey, the species is classified as endangered, while the federal government has designated it as threatened. (The bog turtle is found in scattered sites in seven northeastern states between Massachusetts and Maryland.)
Now, the turtle is being given a new chance to rebuild its population through the restoration of 50 acres of turtle-friendly habitat on a parcel of state land at an undisclosed location in Salem County, one of the state’s last strongholds for the species.
Officials requested that the site not be identified because it would risk attracting poachers who seek the turtles for private collectors or even food, and can make thousands of dollars for a single one of the creatures.
Poaching is a threat
“Poaching is one of the biggest threats,” said Bill Pitts, a zoologist with the Division of Fish & Wildlife, at an event to announce the Salem County preservation program. “They carry a pretty penny if you can get one of these turtles.”
The state purchased the land during the 1990s in an effort to protect the turtle, but scientists didn’t find a single one there between 2001 and 2013 when discovery of a six-year-old turtle at last vindicated their arguments that the area was indeed suitable habitat.
That’s why state officials and scientists from New Jersey Audubon are now working to restore the former farmland site by creating areas of wet ground for feeding (on a wide range of foods including slugs), hummocks for basking and nesting, and shrubby areas for over-wintering.
All of that will be achieved by strategies that include controlling invasive species, planting native shrubs at a low density, curbing phragmites, and selectively thinning trees so that the area continues to offer the open conditions that the turtles favor. The new vegetation will largely replace the forested upland and crop land that preceded the restoration.
Those specialized requirements help to explain the turtles’ decline, and show that, even if the population rebounds, it’s not expected to exceed a target of about 30 at the Salem County location. But any population gains could be reversed by poaching, development or road-building, all factors that have contributed to the species’ decline, officials said.
Scientists also want to increase the mobility of the population so they are hoping to persuade at least 200 nearby landowners to set aside suitable areas that would allow the turtles to move between multiple local sites. The animals need to be able to move to other sites if natural conditions such as tree growth in one site start to become unfavorable, and that’s essential to the species’ long-term survival, scientists say. They track the four-inch long creatures, which sometimes burrow several inches into the mud, by attaching radio-telemetry devices to their shells.
The turtles’ mobility has been curtailed in recent years, leading to fragmented populations in the southwest and northwest of the state, scientists said.
Roads and development create obstacles
“Now, New Jersey has so many roads, so much development, that it’s a lot harder for bog turtles to move around, so they start to become isolated,” said Kristen Meistrell, Southern New Jersey stewardship project pirector for New Jersey Audubon.
At the Salem County site, the known turtle population contains both males and females of the right ages to breed, so officials hope that by creating the right conditions, numbers will increase.
“We’re hoping that this restoration work will create some of that nesting habitat and help those turtles reproduce more successfully,” Meistrell said.
The project is being funded in part by $88,300 over two years in new money for NJ Audubon from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The money is part of federal funding for the Delaware River Basin that’s been made available by the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act of 2016 under which USFWS coordinates the efforts of local conservation groups.
The latest funding adds to $40,000 in federal and corporate funding for the restoration effort from 2013 to 2018. Further support for the project comes from in-kind services from the State of New Jersey.