Colorful, rare turtle threatened – but not yet endangered

By Kristopher Lancaster, Point Park News Service:

The Blanding’s turtle, found only in Erie County, is a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Photo: Center for Biological Diversity
The Blanding’s turtle, found only in Erie County, is a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Photo: Center for Biological Diversity

Reaching lengths of more than 10 inches in adulthood, the Blanding’s turtle has a bright yellow neck and long chin that make it among Pennsylvania’s largest and most recognizable pond turtles.

That is, if you can actually find one.

“In Pennsylvania, the Blanding’s is a very mysterious creature,” said Collette Adkins-Giese, a reptile and amphibian staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Right now, a lot is being done to try to learn more.”

The Blanding’s turtle, found only in Erie County, is a threatened species in Pennsylvania due to habitat destruction, urbanization that causes road kills and predation from raccoons, skunks and foxes. In some cases, these threats led some scientists to discover the turtles experienced almost no reproductive success.

Other threats facing the turtle include different pet trades and turtle derbies, where the turtles are subject to infectious diseases.

“Blanding’s turtles really are beautiful, so they are prized in the pet industry,” Giese said. “At a lot of derbies, people will go into the woods and grab whatever turtle they can find. It’s harmful to the turtles because the close proximity helps spreads disease, and the disease spreads even further when they are released back into the wild.”

It wasn’t even certain the Blanding’s existed in Pennsylvania until 2012 when a three-year study by Ryan Miller of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy proved it.

Miller conducted the study after receiving a grant from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in 2009. Once it was found that there were Blanding’s turtles in Pennsylvania, the study was passed off to the Fish and Boat Commission to look into conservation plans.

Earlier this year, the commission released a report outlining a plan to preserve the Blanding’s in Pennsylvania, such as using radio telemetry on the turtle population in Erie to determine habitat use.

However, Kathy Gipe, a herpetologist and non-game biologist at the commission, said those plans haven’t worked out.

“We were hoping to do radio telemetry, but there just weren’t enough turtles,” Gipe said. “Our next phase is to try and identify the key areas where conservation efforts would be beneficial, because they are very important to swampy ecosystems.”

In order to try and speed up the process, the Fish and Boat Commission teamed up in 2012 with Michael Jones and Liz Willey, both postdoctoral research associates in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts. Jones and Willey are currently working on a two-year conservation effort on remaining population of turtles in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Jones said one of the biggest problems they are facing is the small population of Blanding’s in the Northeast, especially Pennsylvania.

“These turtles occupy a range of aquatic habitats and may live for several decades, but the overall population of Blanding’s turtles in Pennsylvania is very, very small,” Jones said.

The Blanding’s, along with many other pond turtles, are important to their environment in many ways, researchers said. According to the Turtle Rescue League, many painted turtles, such as the Blanding’s, skim algae from the water surface to prevent outbreaks, while all adult turtles feed on vegetation that keeps weeds from clogging up lakes and ponds.

Willey adds that not only are they important to their ecosystem, but they are also important to the species they share that ecosystem with.

The Blanding’s turtle, found only in Erie County, is a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Photo: Center for Biological Diversity
The Blanding’s turtle, found only in Erie County, is a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Photo: Center for Biological Diversity

“The Blanding’s have a large and diverse wetland,” Willey said. “In the winter and fall they are in deep water, while in the spring and summer they move to shallow water. If you can conserve the Blanding’s turtle, then you can conserve more species that may or may not be on the radar that also depend on these habitats.”

While some progress has been made to conserve the turtle – it was added to a list in March that protects it from pet trades – the Blanding’s is still without protection under the state or federal Endangered Species Act.

A petition was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2012 to protect the Blanding’s along with 52 other species of amphibians and reptiles, but currently, those species remain unprotected. Only 61 of the 1,400 protected species under the federal Endangered Species Act are amphibians and reptiles.

“It’s frustrating, because these species definitely need protection,” Giese said. “I think the problem is some people believe that other species are more charismatic and may require more attention. But these animals do have a special place. I’m just hopeful we can raise public awareness.”

This story was produced for The Allegheny Front to mark the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.