Folks stick their necks out for box turtles, but ICC may be the end of the road

Susan Hagood of the Humane Society and her two inquisitive dogs, Duke and Isaac, have spent hundreds of hours searching for the threatened box turtles that inhabit the land that the future Intercounty Connector will plow through. Once found, the turtles are relocated in an effort to help them survive.
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

Twenty-two miles from the future Intercounty Connector, 37 Montgomery County residents who lost homes to the highway's construction feast on butternut squash, apples and lettuce in an upstairs bedroom of Sandy Barnett's Baltimore area home.

"Are you hungry, little one?" Barnett, a retired reptile and amphibian expert, cooed recently as she gently lifted a baseball-size box turtle out of the brown mossy carpet of a plastic container. "Okay, guys, let's get up. Time to eat," she purred as she turned to another container and set down the meal.

The tiny turtles -- most fit in the palm of a hand -- are part of an experiment, sponsored by the Maryland State Highway Administration and applauded by Barnett and other wildlife advocates, to see how well box turtles do after being displaced by a major road project.

Since summer 2008, more than 900 turtles have been saved from the ICC's bulldozers, marking the first time the Maryland highway agency has made an organized effort to move wildlife in advance of roadwork, state officials said. The state is spending $300,000 of the highway's $2.56 billion construction budget for a Towson University study of what happens to 97 turtles affixed with radio transmitters after being moved from woods and meadows in the ICC's path.

The findings will help determine whether all the project's turtle protection efforts -- a plastic mesh fence around the work site, requiring contractors to look for turtles before beginning work and calling on volunteers to help in rescues -- actually help them survive or amount to little more than feel-good public relations.

"There's an awful lot we need to know about whether doing something like this is a good idea from a scientific, biological standpoint," said Rob Shreeve, the state's environmental manager for ICC construction.

Two years into the three-year study, researchers have determined that theprotection fences aren't effective unless they are diligently maintained, said Richard Seigel, chairman of Towson University's biological sciences department. Researchers have found 80 "trespass" instances in which turtles in the ICC study sneaked back onto the construction site. Box turtles' strong instinct to return to nesting and foraging grounds led them past plastic fences that had been chewed through by groundhogs or damaged by vandals, he said.

But the ICC turtles have also revealed something more disturbing, he said. They appear to be headed for extinction, with or without the ICC. Twenty-three of the 97 turtles in the sample have been found dead -- most of those deaths suspected to be due to a respiratory virus striking turtles in Maryland and several other states, Seigel said. One turtle was hit by a car, and four were killed by construction equipment.

"That's a very worrisome [mortality] rate," Seigel said. "That population is clearly not viable based on that data."

Box turtles are not listed as rare, threatened or endangered, but studies show that their numbers have been declining in Maryland since the 1950s, experts said.

Loss of habitat

The loss of wildlife habitat was a key issue in the 50-year debate over whether to build the 18.8-mile, six-lane highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel. Efforts to protect box turtles are part of the project's $370 million environmental program that helped it win federal approval.

Most animals, such as deer and foxes, fled when tree-clearing began. The box turtles stayed put. In addition to being slow, those that sensed danger hunkered down in their brown shells and burrowed in, Barnett said. That defensive instinct might fool predators like raccoons and coyotes but not bulldozers and backhoes. The toll highway is scheduled to open in sections between late 2010 and early 2012.

Barnett has taken in 60 sick and injured ICC turtles in the last two years. She said she paid nearly $5,000 for turtle care and medical expenses last year. She is retired from the National Aquarium in Baltimore but now spends 30 hours each week tending to the turtles. She said her husband, Colin, who works in computers, only half-jokes that she takes more care in preparing the turtles' meals than their own. Barnett says most of the turtles will average three years in her care, even after the ICC opens, but all will eventually be released.

"I find them to be charming animals," said Barnett, who, like a dozen other turtle enthusiasts, volunteers her time. "The freeway is going in regardless, so let's do what we can to mitigate the damage."

Bill Park, environmental manager for the joint venture of three contractors building the ICC's middle section, said construction workers routinely move frogs, snakes and other animals that they come across. However, he said, this is the first time he's aware of an organized effort to rescue animals before work proceeds. Construction workers who make a find get a turtle sticker for their hard hat.

"It's sort of a sense of pride for them," Park said.

Seigel said the box turtles' fate is far from certain. Researchers want to know the effects of relocating them to nearby parkland, including if they overpopulate new habitats or spread disease. Seigel said he hopes to clinch more funding to answer the most pressing question: How well will the turtles that survive the ICC's construction adapt to living in its shadow?

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