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Feds award $130,000 to give box turtles safe passage beneath Washington County road

July 17, 2008|By JOSH SHAW

BOONSBORO -- Box turtles in Greenbrier State Park will be able to safely cross beneath a road that borders the park by next year thanks to a $130,000 grant obtained by the Humane Society of the United States, the organization announced Wednesday.

The money will go toward improving the existing culverts and for building a permanent fence along the road, the name of which is not being named to protect the turtles.

"Box turtles rely on the survival of almost every adult," said Wildlife Issue Specialist Susan Hagood of the Humane Society. "They don't start reproducing until they are about 8 to 10 (years old), they lay very few eggs and most of the eggs are eaten by predators. The few that survive to adulthood are vital."

In summer 2004, Boonsboro resident and Greenbrier State Park employee Mary Jo Bartles found six dead adult box turtles on a road near her home. She contacted the Humane Society, and Hagood started to investigate the situation.

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"Six dead turtles could be enough to doom a population to a slow and irreversible decline to extinction," Hagood said. "They have difficulties navigating roadways."

The federal Transportation Enhancement Program will provide the funds for the project and the Maryland Department of Transportation will administer those funds, according to a Humane Society release.

"This is the first effort of its kind to protect this vulnerable and declining species from a major mortality source," John Grandy, Humane Society senior vice president for wildlife and habitat protection, said in a release. "This funding is an excellent investment to save turtles in Greenbrier State Park and to provide a roadmap for saving other imperiled populations."

On a limited budget, Humane Society staff and volunteers built a low-quality fence 1.7 miles along the "crossing hotspot" in 2005, and also installed cameras and motion sensors at the existing culverts to gather information about the turtles' habits.

"We installed a fence to guide them to existing culverts," said Hagood, who is pursuing her Ph.D. by studying box turtles. "We wanted to see if the turtles actually used the existing culverts."

Within a few weeks, images of turtles appeared on the cameras proving that the culverts were being used, but Hagood said they did not offer ideal conditions.

"You want (the culverts) to be high, wide and handsome," she said. "The current ones are only about 11 to 12 inches in diameter and are not attractive to turtles. Turtles navigate by the sun and the culverts interfere with the ability for the turtles to move."

The new fence will be a permanent fixture along the road and the new culverts will be wider, brighter and have a more natural feel, according to Hagood.

Hagood said it is hard to tell how many turtles live in the area or how many will be helped by the new fence and culverts, but any progress will be good for the survival of the box turtle population.

"If we can even help one box turtle stay alive, it is a success because each one is important to the entire population," Hagood said. "There is probably a healthy population now, but it won't continue to be healthy because no population can withstand the loss of that many adults."

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