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Professor studies threatened turtles in Jefferson County

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Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties are among the few places in New York state home to threatened Blanding's turtles, sometimes called box turtles. SUNY Potsdam professor Glenn Johnson is studying the turtles there this summer, along with his student assistants. Joanna Richards went out in the field with them and has this report.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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On a warm summer morning, Glenn Johnson and two student assistants hike along the Lake Ontario shoreline. The plan is to get a look at a marsh on private property and a swamp on state land behind the beach, both on Point Peninsula. Historical records say Blanding's turtles used to live here, and Johnson wants to find out if they still do. First, he needs to make sure the areas still offer the right habitat and find a good place to set his turtle traps. 

"but if you see that wall of trees over there, right in front of it is sort of that willowy shrub we're looking for..."

We hike for 45 minutes or so in waders and muck boots along the beach.

Caspian terns fly overhead, spotted northern leopard frogs hop in and out of the surf and giant yellow and black swallowtail butterflies flit in the air. An occasional footlong fish skeleton or carcass lays decomposing on the beach.

Finally, we stop at an opening in the trees. Johnson says the water is the right depth – at least 30 inches – with button bushes and some willow mixed in.

[Reporter] What is it that Blanding's turtles like about this environment? 

Well, they like the cool, clear, quiet water. But probably the key thing is, all of these shrubs form sort of a hummock down below the water, a tangle of roots, and in wintertime, the Blanding's turtles will go down underneath them where they're relatively secure and overwinter, hibernate. Now other turtles will be in here as well, like the common painted turtles and snapping turtles, but this sure looks like a good Blanding's turtle wetland – we just don't know if they're in here.

Blanding's turtles have bright yellow patches under their chins and necks. Johnson says Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties are the turtles' stronghold in New York state. This project is designed to fill in some blank spots about exactly where they live.

If you look at New York, um, it's up here along the river plain and lake plain. They probably get down, maybe down to here, we don't really have good records below Watertown, but it's all along here, north of Route 11, between Route 11 and the river, extending out to about the Akwesasne reservation.

Johnson says the turtles aren't on the national Endangered Species list, but are protected as a threatened species in every state where they live. In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation lists them among 11 species in greatest need of conservation. Johnson is working on two projects to study the turtles, including an effort to learn more about their life cycles and relationship to wetlands like this one.

Now we're focusing on, where are they? And where are they in relation to road networks, nesting sites that are very vulnerable to not so much predation but road mortality. That's the biggest threat.

That's because the males wander from wetland to wetland throughout their lifetimes, living on land as well as in water. And that means crossing dangerous roads and highways. 

Johnson has already partnered with Cape Vincent resident Carol Simpson to install signs near Wilson's Bay Marsh in the town of Cape Vincent, warning motorists to watch out.

Other projects have tried using barriers to keep the turtles off roadways altogether.

But, Johnson says, efforts like these have had limited success. So now he's looking at creating man-made nesting areas in places where the turtles won't have to cross roads to use them.

We look at where they do nest and we try to replicate it as best we can. And, you know, I don't know what goes on through a turtle's mind when they select where they go, but we know a couple of elements are always there.

The turtles favor loose sand or soil and open areas, often facing the southern sky, where the sun is.

Even with efforts to give the turtles a leg up at nesting time, the animals still face challenges. Regulations prevent the widespread draining of wetlands now, but agricultural runoff is still a problem. It also takes Blanding's turtles a long time to mature. Females don't reach sexual maturity until they're 20 years old.

So there's 20 years where she's vulnerable to predation before she starts breeding. She lays fewer eggs than other kinds of turtles. They might live a long time, maybe up to 70 years, so she might have 50 years to do this, but since 90 percent of the nests get destroyed, you know, it's a small percentage that make it through. So she's got to live a long time to replace herself.

That's why conserving older female turtles especially is so important. Persuading one reproducing female not to cross a road – perhaps enticing her with a cozy nesting site closer to her marshy home – might help to stabilize an entire population.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Joanna Richards in Point Peninsula.

OUTRO: It turns out Glenn Johnson and his students did catch one of the threatened Blanding's turtles in their traps, an older male. They recorded information about the catch and took a blood sample. They also added Point Peninsula to the handful of places in the state where Blanding's turtle populations have been identified and conservation efforts can target the animals.

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