Thursday, May 10, 2012

Box Turtles and the Endangered Species Act

The box turtle's domed carapace is hinged at either end allowing it to box in its head and tail safe from marauding claws. This adaptation and its brown and tawny camouflage have served it well, individuals often living 80 years or more. Then we came with our roads and vehicles crisscrossing its habitat so fast we rarely notice its spring mate-searching or egg-laying journeys. Terrestrial by nature, it will cross roads more often than a painted turtle which finds its mate in the water and swims, feeds, and basks there all summer. Most box turtles spend their days feeding on plant and animal life within 2 to 8 acres of woods or fields returning to a bedding place every night, burrowing into the leaf litter come winter; a few wander long distances.

Usually in May or June, as long as four years after mating, the female (her underside is flat, his slightly concave) travels, as much as a mile, to open sandy ground to dig a hole for her eggs, usually four to six. These will hatch in two to three months. The hatchlings head out in search of food, such as beetles and caterpillars; as they grow older adding plants and mushrooms.

Hungry foxes, coyotes, skunks or raccoons devour many of the eggs. They too must eat, but we have tipped the balance, our suburban landscape and garbage encouraging skunks and raccoons to proliferate and allowing coyotes to be added to the mix.

About 10 years ago a long-time Lakevillian reported to the Planning Board that he had once spotted 30 box turtles on the acreage of a proposed development. A few months later the bulldozers began. I visited and found a box turtle on a pile of dirt, an intersection to be. I moved him, but turtles always resume their intended journeys so who knows where he went. Hopefully, if he survived construction and traffic, he is not trapped in a box in someone's kitchen, cursed by his physical charm.

Must every tract of open land that gets developed bring box turtles closer to disappearing from Lakeville where once they were plentiful? To the delight of some, dismay of others, our legislature passed the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA) in 1990 hoping we might share land with its older inhabitants. As with most laws, the process of establishing and administering regulations is complicated and sometimes contentious. Someone must determine which creatures are dangerously declining. (Box turtles have been classified as a "species of special concern.") Next, the areas where the creature still lives must be determined. Then, based on biologists' searches and citizens' reported sightings, the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program draws polygons on regulatory maps indicating the creature's habitat. Periodically these maps are revised with new information. If someone wants to construct a significant project within one of these polygons, his plans must be sent to NHESP where biologists will puzzle out if the project will be detrimental to the protected creature. If so, they will work with the applicant to figure out how the project and the creature can coexist.

Such regulations seem onerous in the context of property rights, but water and wildlife do not accept our boundaries. We can be proud to live in a state where we are keeping this in mind.

For more information on turtles, MESA, and how to report a box turtle sighting see:

Year of the Turtle, David Caroll


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