The federal government is giving private landowners money to protect one of the world's smallest and rarest turtles, a species that is losing habitat throughout its range from Georgia to southern New England.
The bog turtle, a secretive reptile the size of a hockey puck, has a chestnut-colored shell and a smear of yellow or orange down the sides of its neck. It's finicky about its habitat, favoring sunny, acidic, spring-fed bogs and fens with short vegetation, sedge tussocks rising from shallow water for basking and egg-laying, and pudding-like mud for easy burrowing.
Because of their rarity, small size, and overall cuteness, the turtles can fetch $1,000 apiece on the black market, making poaching a major threat. The other major threats are invasive plants, habitat loss, and fragmentation of habitat by roads and development.
"It's a very charismatic, pretty turtle," said Marcelo del Puerto, private lands specialist for New York's Bureau of Wildlife. "Illegal collection for sale in the pet trade has been a problem, along with loss of habitat."
Herpetologists believe bog turtles have never been abundant, as they have such specialized habitat needs and lay only two to three eggs a year in clumps of vegetation where they're easy pickings for predators.
"There were 90 known bog turtle sites in New York when I started studying them 30 years ago; now there are about 30," said Al Breisch, a retired New York state herpetologist. "Only three or four of those would be considered 'good' sites, with at least 25 adults and young turtles."
Over the last three decades, bog turtles have disappeared from many of the wetlands they once occupied. The population is estimated at 10,000 to 13,000 in the Northeast, including New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland, and 4,000 to 6,000 in a swatch of Appalachians from Virginia through North Carolina and Tennessee to Georgia. The turtle is listed as federally threatened and endangered or threatened at the state level.
Since about 95 percent of bog turtle habitat is on private land, the turtles and other rare animals, birds and plants that share their niche can't be saved without the help of private landowners.
That's why New York's Department of Environmental Conservation started a new program this spring to preserve and improve bog turtle habitat, and possibly identify new populations, by providing grants and guidance through the federal Landowner Incentive Program.
The program, which also protects grassland bird and Indiana bat habitat in New York and a variety of species in other states, helps landowners save at-risk species with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approved management plans. The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and Nature Conservancy can provide technical assistance.
In North Carolina and Tennessee, a private-sector effort called Project Bog Turtle maintains bog turtle habitat with the help of scores of volunteers. The project also has captive breeding and egg-protection programs.
Jeff Beane, curator of herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said getting landowners to manage their wetlands isn't always easy.
"Some aren't interested in any organization interfering with what they do with their land," Beane said. "Then, we just try to educate them about the importance of wetlands."
Even where the state has tried to protect bog turtles by buying land targeted for development, the creatures may vanish. That's what happened at a 132-acre site the state bought for a half-million dollars in 1981, about 55 miles northeast of Manhattan.
Back then, the site had about 50 bog turtles. But the state didn't manage the preserve to keep out invasive plants. Purple loosestrife and giant reed grass crept in, making the marshy meadows too shady and dense with vegetation for bog turtles to thrive. In the last survey, Breisch found only three adults.
That illustrates one of the downfalls of preserving habitat by buying it: If buyers don't have the resources to also manage the land properly, the goal of protecting endangered species won't be met.
On a recent morning, Breisch and Marcelo del Puerto, administrator of the Landowner Incentive Program in New York state, stepped slowly through a spongy fen in the Hudson Valley searching for bog turtles basking in the sun or swimming in one of the scores of shallow streams trickling among sedges and skunk cabbage.
"Here's one," Breisch called out, reaching under a tangle of greenery for a turtle nearly invisible to the untrained eye against the brown mud.
He identified it by notches that researchers had cut into the edges of its carapace, or top shell, and examined large scars on both the upper and lower shell. The six-year-old male was first captured in May 2008 and was gnawed by a predator between then and August 2008, when it was captured again.
"Since May 2008 it has grown from 33 grams to 59 grams, and from 60.3 millimeter carapace length to 74.3 mm, so the injury did not set its growth back very much," Breisch said. He weighed and measured the turtle before returning it to the spot where he found it.
Breisch pointed out the cut stumps of red cedar trees that had been removed to keep the meadow open to sunshine. Other vegetation, including invasive multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, and buckthorn, had been browsed down by rented goats.
Landowner incentive grants range from $5,000 to $50,000, with recipients paying 25 percent of the project cost. Projects include management of vegetation, restoration of streams, pools, and marshland, and connection of habitats.
Applicants must be within a focus area in southeastern New York where bog turtles are known to live, including parts of Columbia, Greene, Ulster, Dutchess, Putnam, Sullivan and Orange counties. The deadline for applications is July 1.