Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Turtles in path of ICC getting a second chance

Humane Society to study turtles relocated to pens in Boyds and Brookeville

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Susan Hagood, a wildlife issues specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, carries a box turtle that was relocated from the Intercounty Connector’s path to a property in Boyds.
The turtles came to Boyds by car, safely nestled in plastic bins filled with leaves and twigs to be carried to their new digs — two 1-acre pens in secluded woods. They will be in the pens for less than two years, but as the restless reptiles will soon learn, you can’t go home again.

The roughly 40 Eastern box turtles relocated last week lost their habitat to the Intercounty Connector, a controversial 18-mile toll road under construction that will connect Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg to Interstate 95 in Laurel.

But the loss will not be in vain. They are now part of a study by the Humane Society of the United States that looks at whether the species, which instinctively returns to its home, can be successfully relocated.

‘‘We hope that the results of this, either positive or negative, will be used to influence other efforts,” said Susan Hagood, wildlife issues specialist for the Gaithersburg nonprofit. ‘‘... I think these turtles would be dead next year for the most part if not for this study.”

Box turtles are not endangered, but they are considered vulnerable because they don’t lay many eggs and few of those survive to adulthood, Hagood said.

This group’s journey began in September when the ICC Box Turtle Advisory Group recommended that the State Highway Administration relocate turtles that were living in the road’s right of way.

A group of Humane Society staff, SHA employees and volunteers found 244 turtles during a search last year, according to the project proposal.

A little more than half were outfitted with radio transmitters so they could be recaptured and safely placed outside of sediment control fencing around construction areas once construction began. The rest were moved to temporary quarters for the winter to keep them out of harm’s way until the state received permits to put in the fencing.

Barriers are being erected along the ICC corridor as portions of the right of way are cleared, according to Rob Shreeve, SHA’s environmental manager for the project.

However, the group made no recommendations about the roughly 70 turtles that had no home to return to because their habitat was in the direct path of the ICC, Hagood said, which is where the Humane Society stepped in.

Forty of the turtles were moved to two pens on 800 acres of forested land in Boyds owned by resident Mike Rubin, a real estate investor and avid conservationist. The rest will go to two pens on a 4,800-acre site near Brookeville owned by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. One group at each site will be released in the fall and the other in fall 2009.

Only the Boyds and Brookeville turtles are part of the study.

A representative sampling of turtles received the transmitters, and they will be periodically monitored by Humane Society staff and volunteers. The study is funded by the Humane Society, though the SHA will contribute an undetermined amount to a similar planned ICC box turtle study in Bethesda conducted by Towson University researchers, Hagood said.

The pen fencing alone cost the Humane Society about $20,000, Hagood said, and she and other paid staffers will be performing the work along with their regular duties with the organization.

‘‘Unfortunately, there are thousands of animals left that are going to be displaced by the ICC,” Rubin said June 4 as Hagood, ducking under trees and looking under brush, carefully distributed the turtles in the pens.

Unlike most wildlife, turtles can be relocated because they are easily captured and moved, Hagood said, though such efforts are rarely successful.

‘‘It’s like being dropped in the middle of Siberia,” Hagood said as she tucked a turtle under a pile of leaves. ‘‘You don’t know the language, you don’t know the customs, people don’t want you there. I guess it’s preferable to being bulldozed, but it’s such an imposition.”