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Saving Box Turtles

Imagine digging a trench for a box turtle enclosure in one hundred degree heat! That’s what an army of volunteers did back in July 1999 at the Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“It took an hour to dig a yard,” Dr. William Belzer of Clarion University told my husband Bruce and me when we visited the 500-acre sanctuary on April 15, 2003. Altogether, over a three month period, volunteers dug 450 yards to enclose the three-acre plot with a two-foot-high fence. Billy Ward of Boy Scout Troop #78 out of Hadley coordinated the work as his Eagle Scout Project and other Scout members, doctors and family from the Northwest Medical Center, members of the Bartramian Audubon Society, and staff from the McKeever Environmental Education Center assisted him.

The McKeever Environmental Education Center staff members were an integral part of the enclosure because it was built to hold relocated box turtles that refused to remain on the Center’s grounds, turtles Belzer calls “runners.” Back in 1992 the Center wanted to re-establish an eastern box turtle population in its 200-acre preserve. Like many areas that formerly contained box turtles, its population had dwindled and finally winked out during the last century.

Donated turtles for the project came from nature centers, school classrooms, and animal rehabilitation centers. In all cases, no one knew the original homes of these turtles. Eastern box turtles remain in their home territory all of their lives and if they are removed from it, have great difficulty adjusting to a new habitat. Belzer knew this when he took on the McKeever project but, as he later wrote,…”I believed that with diligence I could demonstrate that by just providing each turtle a year of intense shepherding [by radiotagging the turtles] and retrieval, it would adopt its new habitat after release…and that [I] would be hailed the rugged pioneer who showed…how to bring back box turtle populations to habitat where past allowances of collecting etc. had wiped them out.”

It didn’t work out that way. After seven years, he and volunteer helpers were still chasing after and retrieving turtles that had been put in the Center five years before. A few settled down but most did not. Even more frustrating were those that settled down for a couple years and then became “runners.” Some went miles in pursuit of who knows what because Belzer discovered that there seemed to be no correlation between where the box turtles had come from, for example, eastern Pennsylvania, and where they headed, often in the opposite direction. It seemed as if these lost turtles would remain lost forever, and, at the cost of $2000 per turtle after seven years of work, Belzer was frustrated and discouraged.

That’s when he heard from environmental educators Heidi and Roy Boyle about Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary owned by Kathie Goodblood and Dr. Jerry Stanley. Stanley is a doctor and fanatic birder. His wife Goodblood has an affinity for animals, both domesticated and wild. Their private, gated sanctuary seemed ideal for not only the building of a large box turtle enclosure to keep the “runners” in until they adjusted to the area, but for another scheme Belzer wanted to pursue, what he calls “headstarting” young turtles.

Belzer, a tall, lean, fiftish man with intense blue eyes and long graying beard, met us at the Stanley/Goodblood home where his associate Sue Siebert, had arrived minutes earlier. From there we had a good view of the enclosure on the south-facing slope of what had been an old sandstone mine. It has many features of good box turtle habitat–sandy soil for easy digging, water, an open area, and a young forest, but they’ve been steadily improving the habitat by building large (10’x10’x10′) leaf compost mounds, with the help of AmeriCorps workers, to add nutrients to the soil and for the turtles to bury under during hibernation. Belzer and Siebert have also felled trees to provide better cover for the turtles, repeatedly checked their health and treated them for whatever problems they might have, and supplemented the turtle’s natural forage with other food such as chicken and yams. High quality food should improve egg production and may encourage the turtles to settle down.

The four of us trekked over to the enclosure, not entirely hopeful that any turtles would have emerged from hibernation, although Belzer and Siebert have had turtles emerge as early as April and as late as June. Eastern box turtles, they emphasized many times, are highly individualistic. “Ingy,” for instance, never comes up until June, Seibert said. But the day of our visit was an unusually warm and humid sixty degrees, and we were lucky to see “Jeff,” “Mrs. T.,” and “Robin.” Not only is every turtle named by Belzer for family members or volunteers, but he knows every turtle’s history.

“Mrs.T” had been hit by a car and, unlike Humpty Dumpty, had had Epoxy glue to put her shell back together again. “Robin” had missing toes, she was blind in one eye, and her scutes had rotted off when they received her. Once again Epoxy came to the rescue and we could see it on her shell in several places.

“It’s so pleasing to save these animals,” Belzer told us. “Now she’s laying eggs for us.”

Then there is “Jeff.” Like many male box turtles, he came up out of hibernation and was more interested in mating than eating. Already he was romancing “Mrs. T.”

“She turned her head and he got excited,” Belzer pointed out.

Belzer has discovered, through a series of experiments, that box turtles must see each other before they can mate. That means there must be many box turtles in a habitat to make sure they get together. No turtles in Belzer’s sparse population produced eggs until he moved males close to females.

This is only one of many life style practices by box turtles that are dooming populations throughout their range. They don’t mature until ten years of age and eggs and hatchlings rarely survive because of an abundance of predators such as raccoons, skunks, snakes, opossums, crows, ravens, turkey vultures, dogs, and coyotes, according to C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr. in his excellent new book North American Box Turtles: A Natural History. He particularly castigates raccoons which he calls “voracious predators on turtle eggs…the unnatural overabundance of raccoons [due to fragmented and edge habitat]…could have serious consequences for Terrapene. Because of the long life and secretive behavior of box turtles, negative effects might not be observed until population recovery is unlikely.”Precisely Belzer’s point. Even a long-range study such as a 50-year one begun by Louise Stickel in 1945 at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland has not been able to positively discover why box turtle populations change. All they know is that “the population in 1995 numbered no more than 23% of the peak population of 1955.” Sickel did suggest, though, that flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 had caused females to migrate to the uplands for nesting where they might have been killed by mowers cutting the fields or by cars because of increased activities at the Center over the years.

Another long-term study of a box turtle population in Indiana from 1958 to 1984 also found that both turtle density and population size declined substantially. So too did a 30-year study on the University of Delaware campus.

Researchers James Gibbs and Gregory Shriver, writing in Conservation Biology, have no doubt why nearly half the turtle species in the United States, including box turtles, are in decline. Too many turtles are killed on roads. A press release from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission cautioned Pennsylvania drivers to be especially alert for turtles crossing roads in late May and early June on warm humid mornings preceded by rainy nights when turtles are looking for places to lay their eggs. They also asked drivers who stop and move turtles out of the way to head them in the same direction the turtles were traveling.

In addition, they warned against picking up a turtle and taking it to a nature center or pet shop. “Turtles brought [there] often cannot be released back into the wild because of a lack of information as to where they were picked up,” said Andrew Shiels, former Leader of the PFBC’s Nongame and Endangered Species Unit.

Belzer goes further and says that Pennsylvania, like our neighboring states of New York (since 1905), New Jersey (since 1978) and Ohio (since 1997), should forbid pet-collecting of eastern box turtles, because the loss of any long-lived, reproducing, adult box turtle is detrimental to box turtle populations.

Ecologist Whit Gibbons, at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina, agrees, saying that “It takes so long for them to reach maturity that once you have an adult, you have a valuable commodity.” So every adult turtle that Belzer releases into his enclosure adds to the reproductive capacity of the population.

His headstarting program is another attempt to eventually add many turtles to the Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary and once again relies heavily on volunteers. Goodblood showed us the three male box turtles she is raising.”I feed them a lot of slugs,” she said. “They like them and I don’t want the slugs in my garden.”

A couple dozen other volunteers are also raising young box turtles in their homes. To get those turtles, Belzer and Seibert keep a close watch on his females in the enclosure. When they are ready to lay eggs, he takes them to his backyard 30×30 yard pen in Oil City, half of which is shaded, but the turtles prefer to lay their eggs in the sunny half. After they lay their eggs–4 to 6 on average–Belzer digs them up and incubates them for 68 to 81 days. When they hatch, the turtles go to the volunteers who follow Belzer’s strict guidelines on raising them until they weigh half as much as adult turtles, a process that takes two years. Studies show that their 200 to 250-gram weight keeps them safe from most predators.

Then he takes a month to wean the young. First he gives them wriggling worms since they are attracted to movement. Then he puts the worms in their commercial food. Finally, they understand and eat the worms. From there they are put in what Seibert and Belzer refer to as the “kindergarten area”–a fenced, wooded habitat on a steep, wet slope a mile away from the enclosure.

On the day we visited, Seibert said there were 20 juveniles inside the fence. If they adjust to the habitat, they will put radio-transistors on them and let them wander-at-large in the 500-acre sanctuary. Then they or other assistants will periodically locate each turtle, record its position with a GPS receiver, note its health status, and supplement its diet if necessary. With this work they hope to learn how far turtles move and which habitat they use. So far, most have stayed in the vicinity of the fenced area, but one went 483 yards.

“One female did a complete football field circle,” Seibert told us.

Seibert never saw a turtle until about six years ago.

“I was a Girl Scout leader. Bill started talking about his turtles at a program he did on pond water.”

She was hooked and started watching turtles at night at McKeever. Now she is Belzer’s paid associate and spends 20 to 25 hours a week in the field tracking box turtles. An alert and observant woman with an engaging smile, she has sharp eyes and easily spotted turtles as they emerged from hibernation.

Both Belzer and Seibert are in this for the long haul. Belzer thinks it will take at least 15 years for his adult “runners” to adapt to the enclosure habitat. But despite all his work to rehabilitate adult turtles and headstart young ones, he realizes “that it’s virtually impossible to bring these guys back, so we need to aggressively conserve whatever is left.”

Habitat loss and fragmentation, road kills, and casual pet collecting are imperiling the survival of what used to be a common species across much of its range in Pennsylvania. An archaeological study in New York state found that hundreds of years after the Iroquois had decimated box turtle populations in western New York, box turtles have not returned to what is good, remote habitat.

Belzer finances his costly work and it is clear that he is totally dedicated to spending the rest of his life championing the eastern box turtle and trying to find out as much as he can about its life history. He summed up his feelings about the Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary when he told us, “I always have a sense of gratitude when I’m here. Here the turtles can be safe.”

6 thoughts on “Saving Box Turtles

  1. Coastal South Carolina is in need of a way to help box turtles and other creatures survive the onslaught on habitat. I realize turtles try to go back to where they came from. If groups could be organized to take turtles from habitat before it is destroyed,then where to take them for safety and repatriation? I hate to hear the word impossible. I hate to hear the word extinct.

  2. i have been saving american painted box turtles for years. i watch for them on the road every year when the weather gets warm enough. i never remove them from their environment – just move them across whatever roads they are traversing. it is a tragedy when i see them killed. i own six acres in east tennessee. there are a number (at least three that i have seen repeatedly for several years)living on my property. i witnessed a female laying eggs one year. i don’t know if they hatched and survived, although i have seen at least one young one since then. i also, unfortunately, accidentally, killed a baby when turning a garden plot. which is why i am writing to you now. there is a fair amount of terra-forming that i would like to do on my property, but i do not want to harm the turtles. are there any resources that can help me ensure the turtles remain unharmed while i have some of the property leveled-off?

  3. I wish I could help you, but I have no suggestions. Here in Pennsylvania our PA. Fish and Boat Commission is responsible for turtles. I don’t know what the equivalent might be in Tennessee, but contacting a state agency responsible for wildlife would be your best bet.

  4. thank you. one of my neighbors works for tn wildlife rehabilitation, although she focuses on mammals and birds, she may be a resource for other contacts within that agency. i’ll start there.

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