It’s a surprisingly cool August morning in the western North Carolina mountains. A few wildlife biologists speak in hushed tones and carefully step into one of America’s rarest wetland systems: a Southern Appalachian Mountain Bog. The boneset, black-eyed susan and ironweed offer a smatter of color amongst the ambers and deep greens of sedges and rushes. It’s hard to avoid walking into the many orb-weaving spider webs that glisten in the morning sun. The detached wings of tiger swallowtails are scattered amongst the vegetation. A fat praying mantis sitting on a nearby goldenrod claims these trophies as her own. As we arrive into the center of the bog, something wholly unnatural comes into view: an electric fence system and series of wire-mesh cages dot the wetland landscape. We’ve come to check on the tiny and precious life that exists within these protected spaces: the eggs of one of America’s rarest animals, the bog turtle.
Back up three months, and what you would have seen was a pair of biologists carefully walking in the bog at dusk, red flashlights in hand, stopping every so often to leave orange flagging behind. The biologists arrived to witness a seldom seen natural phenomenon that has likely occurred for millennia: mother bog turtles carefully laying their eggs on raised sphagnum hummock mounds. There are few places left in the world where such a thing can be observed. Over the course of several weeks, these nests and many others were protected until they hatched.
Bog turtles are not faring well as a species. Most populations and the bogs they inhabit have disappeared across the region. Few turtles can be found in many of the bogs that remain. Juveniles haven’t been observed in decades at many sites. A combination of higher adult mortality and limited recruitment appears to be a one-two punch that the species cannot tolerate. Although ‘relict’ individuals may linger for decades in isolated patches, functioning and stable populations are extremely rare today. The species simply didn’t evolve to compensate for roads, increased predation rates and farmers eager to drain “that wet spot out back".
I tend to think of bog turtles as ecological anachronisms, or vestiges of an old ecology that has lost its balance. A gypsy that exists in a landscape that is no longer friendly to wandering. Where the extinction of megafauna that historically browsed, grazed and wallowed these wetlands sped up rates of succession and pushed the turtles out in search of wetter and sunnier pastures. A landscape where the absence of apex predators has “released” meso-predators (e.g. raccoons, opossums and skunk), to gorge on our trash, bog turtles and their eggs. Although these imbalances are certainly problematic, they are not insurmountable.
And that brings us back to this mountain bog. We’ve been concerned that this turtle population and several others in the region were aging and in decline. Thus, we initiated a turtle monitoring and nesting study with the hopes of figuring out what was going on. In 2016 and 2017, only a single egg out of 107 survived to hatch here, primarily due to nest predation. Across multiple sites, we observed higher levels of nest predation in the wetlands where we find fewer juveniles. Models suggest these predation events contribute to population level decline.
With this knowledge in hand, we began active management in 2018. We conducted vegetative and hydrological restoration to improve conditions for the turtles on site. The bog is wetter than before, and remains saturated through drought periods. More nesting areas and places to bask are available as well. Many turtles have been seen actively using these newly improved spaces. We hope that these changes will translate to more turtles staying put instead of wandering a gauntlet of predators and cars in search of bogs that no longer exist.
We also initiated a meso-predator trapping and egg protection program. Last fall, we released 65 hatchling turtles into this and other locations. We’ve re-encountered many of these animals dozens of times in the last six months. This work continues in 2019. We’ve already marked and released 36 hatchlings this season, surpassing our 100th released in two years! And our season isn’t over! I can say with certainty that a baby turtle’s egg-tooth is slicing open the world as I write this. We’ll head out in a few days’ time to take measurements, mark and release this hatchling and his/her siblings. Although I can’t say for certain, I am optimistic that some of these hatchlings will survive to reproduce themselves.
Bog turtles offer serious challenges to those dedicated to conserving them. Addressing some of these issues might involve imperfect solutions such as trapping out the small mammals we subsidize. Or finding adequate surrogate browsers and grazers as we’re not likely to restore bison or the extinct stag-moose. Or boosting recruitment as managers can’t resolve many of the chronic landscape-scale problems killing adult turtles. These populations will not stabilize on their own. But we, the conservation community, choose to keep them in this world. Thus, we will continue to sweat and bleed as we brush-cut overgrown areas and we will continue to quietly wander bogs at dusk. We will implement promising conservation strategies and adapt when they fail. I hope to report back in the coming years that we have expanded these types of efforts in a strategic way and are stabilizing populations across the landscape. Because these turtles are really something special! And because we refuse to describe them, and the ecosystem they belong to, in the past tense.
This ongoing work is a partnership involving the following agencies, universities and organizations:
Tangled Bank Conservation
The Nature Conservancy
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
United States Fish & Wildlife Service
Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy
Turtle Survival Alliance
Turtle Conservation Fund
Global Wildlife Conservation
Project Bog Turtle
Defenders of Wildlife