Protection a Shell Can't Provide

Drew, a chocolate Labrador belonging to Susan Hagood of the Humane Society of the United States, sniffs a turtle that he found under a log along the intercounty connector's path. Searchers have found 90 eastern box turtles.
Drew, a chocolate Labrador belonging to Susan Hagood of the Humane Society of the United States, sniffs a turtle that he found under a log along the intercounty connector's path. Searchers have found 90 eastern box turtles. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Their short tails beat back and forth faster as their noses concentrated on a pile of rotting wood, wet leaves and thorny brush in the dense Montgomery County forest.

"Look, look," said John Rucker, a turtle activist from Tennessee, pointing at his three Boykin spaniels. "Think they found one."

Sure enough, Sparky brought his snout out of the brush with a yellow-spotted eastern box turtle carefully clutched in his teeth.

The half-dozen turtle hunters were combing the woods yesterday along the planned route for Maryland's intercounty connector, which could replace the turtle-friendly habitat with a six-lane toll highway. The aim is to catalogue and fit the turtles with transmitters so they can be rounded up and evacuated from the area when, or if, construction begins.

State Highway Administration officials are heeding the advice of their box turtle advisory committee with an "environmental stewardship" campaign to save the turtles from being crushed under bulldozers or trapped under the asphalt, said Robert Shreeve, the connector's environmental manager. The campaign, which began about a month ago, is estimated to cost up to $20,000.

Unlike deer, birds and other woodland and wetland creatures in the area, turtles "are slow-moving and have a very difficult time getting out of the way," Shreeve said during a news conference in the woods yesterday morning.

Major construction on the long-delayed highway was set to begin Oct. 16 but has been put on hold as a federal judge considers two lawsuits alleging that Maryland officials did not properly evaluate the highway's environmental impact. The 18-mile highway would run north of the Capital Beltway connecting Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and Interstate 95 in Laurel.

U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. began hearing arguments Monday and is expected to rule this month.

While the lawsuits are pending, highway officials and activists are continuing with turtle relocation plans. They have found 90 turtles and hope to bring that number to 150. Some of the creatures were tagged with donated transmitters and released in the spots where they were found, but most are being held in a pen until the transmitters the highway administration ordered arrive.

If the judge rules in the state's favor and major construction begins, officials will locate the turtles, who will probably be hibernating under four to six inches of dirt and leaves. The best way to move "pretty much comatose" turtles is to work on a cold day and keep the turtles at a constant low temperature, said Christopher W. Swarth, a committee member and director of Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County.

They will then place the turtles in a new hibernation hole on the other side of the highway construction fence, which will be reinforced with thin mesh so the turtles can't crawl back in. Shreeve said construction workers will also be trained on what to do if they spot a turtle: Pick it up and alert the environmentalists.

The activists involved said none of them has ever moved this many turtles before -- and they aren't sure whether it will work. "Just because we'll pick up buckets of turtles doesn't mean they'll still be around in a few years," Swarth said.

Eastern box turtles can be found in many spots in the region, the activists said, but their population is slowly dwindling for a number of reasons: low egg counts, collisions with fast-moving cars, dwindling habitats, pesticides and, yes, children with sticks. Moving a whole population of turtles, even a few miles, could be enough for that species to disappear from the area.

Turtles hardly ever venture more than a few miles from their home, said Susan Hagood of the Humane Society of the United States. Turtles that are transplanted usually don't settle down, she said, and instead keep wandering in search of home. Plus, the little guys might not be happy being pulled out of hibernation.

"We're trying something that history has said doesn't work," she said. "But with a declining species, we can't do nothing."

Although the activists said they were glad the highway administration has publicly supported saving the turtles, they worry that the support came too late.

Committee member Sandy Barnett, a longtime herpetologist, said that the panel formed nearly a year ago and that highway officials should have started the process in June so they could mark the turtles before they started their fall hibernation routine. She is also upset that the transmitters have not arrived and will be too large for some of the baby turtles.

"It's a $2.4 billion [highway] project," she said. "They have all of these funds to allocate, and they can't take care of these turtles?"

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