Development and poaching erasing years of work to protect wood turtles in Virginia

Courtesy of JD Kleopfer

Wood turtles display a unique orange coloration on their neck and limbs making them attractive in the illegal pet trade.

By Evan Visconti
Virginia Mercury

Human development and poaching are erasing years of conservation work to protect wood turtles in Virginia.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are searching for the few remaining wood turtles still found east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but low population densities combined with the cryptic behavior of wood turtles makes finding them a challenge.

It turns out that finding a wood turtle’s DNA can be almost as useful as finding the real thing. Field researchers collect water samples each spring and fall from streams that could potentially contain traces of wood turtle eDNA, or environmental DNA.

The samples are processed at the Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Genomics, and within a matter of weeks, geneticists can tell whether wood turtle eDNA was detected within each sample.

The information can be used as a form of surveillance that is almost as effective as traditional visual encounter surveys and significantly cheaper, said Tom Akre, program scientist at the Conservation Ecology Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

The Smithsonian will pass its survey results directly to county planners in Virginia to give them a better handle on where wood turtle populations are and what kind of threats they might be facing, said Jonathan Drescher-Lehman, eDNA researcher for the Smithsonian’s wood turtle surveys.

Wood turtles are disappearing quickly from their native range in northern Virginia because of a wide range of threats. “With wood turtles and a lot of turtles in general, there’s not just one single smoking gun that you can address,” said JD Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist.

The intrusion of development

“For northern Virginia east of the Blue Ridge, there are only maybe one or two locations where you could still find wood turtles consistently,” Kleopfer said. “Most of our best populations and our healthiest ones are west of route 81.”

Scientists can say with certainty that the extirpation, or local extinction, of Virginia’s wood turtles is mainly a result of human development.

“The habitat that remains in northeastern Virginia is heavily degraded,” Kleopfer said. “A lot of the streams up there are referred to as the Yoo-hoo streams. They look like chocolate milk because there’s just so much sediment runoff, they’re scoured down to bedrock and they have 5- to 6-foot high banks caused by runoff from impermeable surfaces.”

The negative impacts of human development on wood turtles are visible elsewhere throughout their native range, which extends north to Nova Scotia.

It is not just special to Virginia. “There is more or less a fairly direct correlation between the amount of development and the decline of a population,” Akre said. “We have places in Virginia just like they do in West Virginia where populations appear to have declined as a result of development and where populations appear to be robust because of a lack of development.”

Scientists believe that northeastern Virginia would contain large and healthy populations of wood turtles if it weren’t for the abundance of human development. “It has baseline natural features that would potentially promote a lot of turtles,” Akre said.

“Unfortunately development is only going to keep continuing, so in our minds from a conservation perspective and to manage our resources, money and personnel time they’re basically dying populations,” said Jessica Meck, project manager at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Ecology Center. “We’re actively watching population collapse because of this intrusion of development that is growing from DC to the Blue Ridge.”

The process of urbanization, suburbanization and development is difficult to reverse in general and its impacts can be everlasting. “That’s not to say there isn’t hope,” said Scott Buchanan, Rhode Island’s state herpetologist and co-chair at the Collaborative to Combat the Illegal Trade in Turtles.

One major step toward protecting wood turtles from the worst threats associated with development is watershed restoration. “There are places we know of in northeastern Virginia, where watershed restoration techniques can have absolutely positive benefits to wood turtle populations potentially,” Akre said. “That’s yet to be fully tested in Virginia, but the science is there in terms of concept, and in some places it’s there in terms of evidence in other states.”

Wood turtles depend on a healthy watershed for survival. They spend summers on land and then slow their metabolism around November to overwinter on the bottom of creeks and streams until spring. Nesting season has just begun for wood turtles in northern Virginia who have now moved into the terrestrial phase of their year.

Land management strategies like reduced mowing during nesting season, installing wildlife passages at known turtle crossing hotspots and conserving more land are other strategies that can be used to protect wood turtles in developed regions, Buchanan said.

“Even just one or two turtles per year getting hit by cars at a population of 100 or 200 turtles can be the long term difference between conservation and extirpation,” he added.

Relentless poaching and trafficking

“Turtles are probably the most illegally trafficked group of vertebrates there are out there,” said Kleopfer. “People get outraged over the illegal wildlife trade when they see rhino horns or pangolins or all of these charismatic feathered and furry animals, but there is this humongous illegal trade happening that people aren’t really very knowledgeable on because it doesn’t get the press coverage that other animals do.”

Wood turtles are particularly attractive in the illegal pet trade because they are moderate-sized with an average length of about 5 to 8 inches, are relatively easy to care for and display an intricately patterned carapace or shell that sits atop colorfully pigmented legs and neck.

The domestic and overseas demand for illegally traded turtles as pets is significant. “Every year, thousands of turtles are illegally harvested and trafficked around the world,” Kleopfer said.

The exact numbers of how many turtles are poached and trafficked nationally are hard to pin down, even to an order of magnitude, said Buchanan. “The majority of the international demand is coming from Asia, that much we know. We know it’s enormous and it just seems like a bottomless demand for some of the species involved.”

Since wood turtles are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, it is up to individual states to regulate the collection and trade of wood turtles.

“It just makes for a patchwork of regulations,” said Buchanan. “The trend in regulations is certainly toward being more restrictive, and the federal government does regulate interstate commerce. So if you illegally poach an animal in one state and bring it to a state where it is legal to sell, you still committed a federal crime.”

Virginia’s Board of Wildlife Resources approved amendments to the Commonwealth’s regulations last July to close some of the loopholes that were being taken advantage of by turtle poachers.

The old regulations allowed for private possession of up to five individuals of any single native or naturalized species of amphibian or reptile, as long as they weren’t on any state or federal endangered species lists or specifically banned from possession by regulation, Kleopfer said.

“This was way over collection, so we changed the regulation to be one per residency, and it could only be species that are not in our state wildlife action plan,” he added.

Wood turtles are listed as a species of “critical conservation need” in Virginia’s wildlife action plan. They were protected under the former regulations, but that never stopped people from poaching them, Kleopfer said.

A brief search of headlines from around the country is perhaps one of the best ways to understand the true scale of the illegal turtle trade. “It’s happening at the state and federal level all the time,” said Buchanan, referring to dozens of seizures from around the country over the past three to four years that involve hundreds or in some cases thousands of illegally collected wild turtles.

“All it takes is for one unscrupulous person to identify a really important site or population of some species of turtles, whether it’s wood turtles or maybe spotted turtles or bog turtles,” said Buchanan. “If they come in and poach a significant chunk of that population in a small amount of time, they will profit handsomely, and in doing so they will erase years or decades worth of conservation work.”

The future of Virginia’s wood turtles

As more becomes known about Virginia’s remaining wood turtles, local communities can better understand how to protect them.

“It’s county ordinances that continue to allow for development in flood plain areas and along streams,” Kleopfer said. “Unfortunately, I think that ship has kind of sailed for most of northern Virginia.”

That is not to say that some areas wouldn’t benefit from restoration and potentially have wood turtles recolonize them. “We’re focusing on putting our efforts into preserving what’s left up there,” he said.

Over time, the probability of wood turtles being listed as an endangered species at the federal or state level will likely increase, Buchanan said. “That’s just because of the relentless march of development and human population density.”

The Smithsonian’s wood turtle surveys will help inform the US Fish and Wildlife Service as they make their decision whether to list wood turtles federally under the Endangered Species Act, said Meck of the Smithsonian’s Conservation Ecology Center.

Even if wood turtles do not become listed, the information will help scientists track wood turtles long into the future to develop different trends associated with extirpation.

The surveys will include more locations in this round of research in an effort to represent the entire range of conditions where wood turtles could be found in Virginia, from small forested streams in the mountains to large streams that feed into the Potomac in Fairfax County “and everything in between,” Akre said.

The study began in 2013, and the results of the initial round of research were published in 2019. Akre and his team at the Smithsonian will continue sampling for wood turtles in Virginia through 2023 or 2024 as part of a second round of funding from the Smithsonian and a competitive US Fish and Wildlife Service grant awarded to Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources.

“If someone comes back and samples the same sites in a decade or two, it would be really easy to look at how fast populations are declining or how fast ranges are restricting at these more rural versus urban areas,” said researcher Drescher-Lehman. “It’s kind of like a snapshot in time of where the turtles are that could be referenced in the future.”

This information could also be useful for observing the effects of climate change on wood turtle populations in northern Virginia, where dramatic fluctuations in temperatures can presumably kill wood turtles after they come out of the water to bask during an early, unusually warm spring day. “Then you get these immediate freezing temperatures that they get caught in, and it can kill them if they don’t get back into the water,” Meck said.

If Virginia’s climate is more like Georgia’s in 100 years, wood turtles won’t be able to survive the warmer winters in general, Meck said. Their range will contract in the south and into New England, Canada, and the upper Midwest.

There are things we can do now to protect future populations of wood turtles if society is willing to make a big investment in wildlife and conservation, Buchanan added. A big step in that investment is getting people to consider what are commonly described as non charismatic species.

“It’s hard for me to even describe a wood turtle as non-charismatic,” Buchanan said. “I think it’s the coolest thing going.”

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