Wildlife & Nature

Statewide Search is On for One of R.I.’s Rarest Turtles

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A female wood turtle. (istock)

Wood turtles are among the rarest turtles in Rhode Island, and little is known about where they can be found and what conservation strategies may boost their populations.

A University of Rhode Island graduate student is taking the first steps in addressing those questions by surveying the state to identify local populations of the turtle and the habitat they require from season to season.

“There has never been a statewide survey of wood turtles in Rhode Island before, and before we can protect them, we have to figure out where they are,” said Chloe Johnson, a native of Atlanta who is in her second year of studying the turtles as part of her master’s degree.

Wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta), which have been proposed for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, are found from Virginia to southern Canada and west to Minnesota. Sporting orange patches on their neck and legs, they spend time in slow-moving rivers and streams and in terrestrial environments like forests, croplands, and pastures. They nest in open sandy areas.

URI graduate student Chloe Johnson holds a wood turtle
URI graduate student Chloe Johnson holds one of the subjects of her research, a wood turtle. (Courtesy photo)

Working in collaboration with URI associate professor Nancy Karraker and Scott Buchanan at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Johnson conducted upland surveys last summer in hopes of finding nesting turtles, and she scoured rivers and streams during the spring and fall. So far, she has identified 13 locations where the turtles have been documented. But finding the turtles has been harder than she expected.

“I’ve done more than 70 surveys and found fewer than 15 wood turtles,” she said. “They’re much more difficult to find than I anticipated. In the summer I went three weeks without seeing one. It’s hard, but when you find one it’s so much more rewarding.”

In the upcoming field season, when Johnson finds a wood turtle, she will attach a GPS data logger on its shell so she can track its movements.

“We want to know where the turtles go at night. Are they in fields or forests or streams?” she said. “How often do they cross roads? We’ve seen and heard from a lot of people that they’re seen crossing roads. Maybe we can find potential hot spots of road mortality.”

Wood turtles, which weigh 2-3 pounds and are 6-9 inches long, are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation from the construction of roads, houses, and other human-based development, according to Johnson. Their streams are also being negatively impacted by development. In addition, their bright coloration makes them popular in the pet trade and a prime target for wildlife traffickers.

“They’re endangered range-wide,” Johnson said, “but compared to surveys in Virginia, they’re much harder to find here in Rhode Island.”

The graduate student anticipates completing her wood turtle research by fall 2022, when she hopes to have located previously unidentified breeding areas that state wildlife officials can include in future management and conservation plans.

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  1. RIDEM does a terrible job of monitoring wildlife areas. During the spring after hibernation, you can see reptiles out and about but rarely if ever do you see any DEM officials within DEM properties. I suspect that there is a lot more poaching in RI woods than we realize. https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/local/2021/11/05/rhode-island-zoo-treated-turtles-rescued-smuggling-operation/6297505001/ And that is just one of many stories of Asian smuggling of US animals.

  2. The Projo story cited by Renu below is a must-read for all concerned with threatened wildlife, especially turtle and other reptile fans.

    https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/local/2021/11/05/rhode-island-zoo-treated-turtles-rescued-smuggling-operation/6297505001/

    As for Renu’s comment that DEM is doing a "terrible job of monitoring wildlife," the "Why?" of that was reported in a seminal piece by Frank Carini in 2015, called "Enforcement of RI’s environmental laws lax."

    https://www.ecori.org/government/2015/10/27/rhode-island-business-friendly-and-environmentally-ignorant

    Read it and weep.

    And consider after reading: "What might the environmental community in Rhode Island do differently this time around to effect "the deal-making class" which at the root of DEM’s problem?"

  3. I am always dismayed at the RIDEC’s poor history of Environmental Protection and lack of research on what should be important. At what point will RI overhaul that department and perhaps determine the reasoning for such a poor history and response?

  4. DEM lacks the resources to do the job. See Frank Carini’s exhaustive 10/27/2015 report on that phenomenon cited earlier: "Enforcement of RI’s environmental laws lax."

    It’s not merely lack of budgetary resources, but lack of political capital as well—really, that’s the primary problem. DEM is helpless without serious political backing in the Governor’s office and the General Assembly. And the root of that problem is a seeming irony: Seems you peg a stone in the air anywhere in this state and you’ll break the window of an environmental organization of one description or another. How many are gathered under the Environmental Council of RI’s umbrella? Sixty something?

    And yet the political pressure they collectively bring to bear on elections and the GA and the Gov’s office would hardly propel a balloon across a picnic table.

    Take just one organizations as an example: the Land Trust Council. There are what, 45 land trusts in the state? Now imagine, a key environmental bill is being considered by a Senate or House committee. DEM’s budget, for example. Is the Land Trust Council, with those 45 members, incapable of rallying 5 individuals from each Land Trust to appear at a rally in support DEM’s budget at the the State House? And Save the Bay and Audubon—just to start going down the list—couldn’t they rally their memberships at least half that many? …Easily, you have 350 people all in blaze green t-shirts waving signs and banners, chanting, clogging up the stairs and corridors, presenting a petition, etc, etc—all in front of cameras—and making it abundantly known that Rhode Islanders care like hell about their environment and demand a stronger DEM. And if the "deal making class" can’t get that through their heads, then come November they will elect candidates who do.

    Political hardball, or even softball, just seems lost on our mainstream environmental organizations.

  5. I absolutely agree that DEM lacks the resources to do much of its work. But in regard to Renn’s concern as I understand it, by coincidence there are populations of protected reptiles on some of the State Wildlife Management Areas, but many populations of listed turtles are not found on DEM properties. Or, if found on a DEM property the population extends well beyond the state property line, often into private property. Many of these populations have been monitored for years by DEM personnel, URI researchers, and other conservation groups.

    However, this should not suggest that DEM is doing all it can to protect these species. The “protection” afforded by regulation is from being collected, not from having your habitat destroyed or from getting squished by a car. Wetland regulations provide some protection, but most reptiles also use uplands during some portion of the year.
    The wood turtle is a great example. It is primarily an upland species, retreating to streams and rivers during the winter, and can range widely over mostly forested areas. The wood turtle has been listed as a Rhode Island State Threatened species since the early 80s, which basically means there are more than five populations in the state, but the species faces multiple threats to its’ continued existence here.

    One population that has been well known for at least 30 years is found in the town of Burrillville. This population has likely persisted there because of the high percentage of the landscape that is forested – a portion of this landscape was recently being considered for the construction of the largest power plant ever built in RI, Invenergy’s Clear River Energy Center. I know, you’re all sick of hearing about the power plant. But there is much to learn from the tale of the power plant, in this case how state government and the conservation community are doing in regards to protecting listed species.

    In short, despite having first hand knowledge of the presence of wood turtle at the CREC site, the information was never provided to the EFSB in the DEM advisory opinion, nor was it provided to Invenergy’s environmental consultants in the DEM (Fish and Wildlife) survey guidelines, nor was it provided by The Nature Conservancy in their written or oral testimonies despite the listing of the wood turtle in their 2009 conservation plan for the Northwest Corner. In fact, the TNC oral testimony (you can see the video) affirmed that biodiversity had little to do with their objections.

    To be clear, impact to the wood turtle population by construction of the CREC would have been considerable, and most of it would have come during construction through direct mortality by vehicles along access roads and in the clearing of more than 200 acres of forest for the ROWs. If permitted, DEM could have required Invenergy to employ mitigating measures to protect wood turtles; for example, having monitors walk ahead of construction vehicles to move turtles from harms way.

    Why was the wood turtle ignored? Just another example of how DEM and the conservation community downplayed the ecological significance of the forest where the CREC was to be built. And that, as they say, is the way it is. I shouldn’t need to go into great detail for people to understand why. State government in general, spurred by the business community, is getting tired of land protection. Land taken off tax roles, good developable land taken for no good reason. Unfortunately, these are the same people (corporations) that are the biggest donors to the NGOs.
    TNC, Audubon, any NGO, does not live by membership dues alone. They need the big dollars from private donations and government grants to survive, and it would be naïve to think they will not do what is necessary to insure the cash flow. Given the conservation community’s tepid objection to the CREC, it’s not unreasonable to think they were influenced by their desire to have the state float another Open Space Bond and the need to concede something to Governor Raimondo to insure her support.

    This is just the lesson from the power plant, and something to remember when you see any group, governmental or private, do something that seems counter to what you expect from that group. If you find yourself thinking, why did they do or say that? The answer likely has to do with money. And supporters of any group should take some responsibility to understand and critically think about how that group is operating. and if it continues to be worthy of their support.

  6. To expand upon a point Rick E has made here, another gift of the Burrillville power plant saga is the example of how Connecticut, in contrast to Rhode Island, does indeed afford regulatory protection for threatened terrestrial species that do spend either all or a portion of their life cycle beyond the limits of regulated wetlands.

    The Town of Burrillville’s expert environmental witness at the EFSB hearings on the power plant, Anthony Zemba, is a Connecticut based consultant. He produced both extensive written testimony, and testified orally, under cross examination, for two consecutive days at the hearings. He testified that in Connecticut, if a species officially listed as threatened was documented on "uplands" slated for a development proposal—a species such as the wood turtle—the developer would have to go through a formal "Takings" process that would consider the development’s impact on the survival of the species. Basically, the question of "Can the impact be mitigated without threat to the species?" If yes, the project goes forward with the necessary protective stipulations. If no, the project needs to find a new site. People need to know that RI DEM, in it’s Wildlife Protection Plan, does indeed map the habitat perimeters of all locally documented "state-listed" species. But unlike in Connecticut, those species whose habitats are outside of "jurisdictional wetlands" are afforded no regulatory protection for their habitats. As Rick E. noted, while it is against the law in Rhode Island to physically remove a wood turtle from its habitat, it is not against the law to remove the habitat from the wood turtle.

    That’s not DEM’s fault. Oh, stronger leadership could advocate for such threatened species"Takings" regulation. But advocacy by the Department for anything goes nowhere unless we, the voting public, elect a Governor and General Assembly that has the power of final approval. The environmental press, however, could do its part by examining the issue. Mr. Zemba, and others, are certainly available for interview.

  7. In 2019 I came across http://www.planning.ri.gov/documents/trans/LRTP%202035%20-%20Final.pdf which to my dismay does not note RIDOT placing signage for wildlife crossings. See section 4-5.

    HOPE:
    https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2021/11/15/new-funding-for-wildlife-highway-crossings-should-help-animals-and-drivers-alike notes,
    "The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021—which Congress passed on Nov. 5, and President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov.15 —establishes a wildlife crossing safety program that will fund much more strategic infrastructure than just roadway signs."

  8. This is great information, Deborah. Thanks for posting. I hope the media—at least this medium—asks some questions of DOT.

    Who knows? …Peter Alviti might be a turtle fan!

  9. We live on Plain Meeting House Road in West Greenwich; we’ve seen a wood turtle several times over many years. We most recently saw one today on our property.

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