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Winter Habitat Management Will Benefit Rare Turtles Next Spring

Concord, NH – Late summer and early fall is the time when eggs laid by New Hampshire turtles in the spring begin to hatch and future generations emerge from their upland nest chambers. With luck and excellent camouflage, these tiny hatchlings will make it to the safety of a pond, stream, or wetland. In an effort to move ahead with conservation actions while turtle populations overwinter, Fish and Game biologists have been working with local, state, and federal partners, landowners, and land trusts to identify areas within high-priority turtle populations where nesting habitat can be created to decrease the likelihood of females crossing roads or entering residential developments.

“The location of a suitable nesting area is crucial for successful nesting and hatchling survival,” said New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Wildlife Biologist Josh Megyesy. “For some sites, creating nesting areas requires cutting trees to expose the ground to full sunlight and then bringing in sand, while others just need some vegetation cut back and soils scarified with heavy equipment.”

This kind of habitat management in sensitive turtle areas is done during the upcoming winter months when turtles are hibernating in the water and when the ground is frozen. Some of this work has already been initiated in key areas in the Granite State, but more will continue this coming winter and beyond. The Fish and Game Department’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program has been monitoring populations of several rare species of turtles throughout New Hampshire, including state-endangered Blanding’s turtles. Through mark-recapture methods and the use of radio telemetry to track individual turtles, biologists have been able to better understand how these turtles use their diverse wetland and upland habitats.

“For two years we followed one particular female Blanding’s turtle,” explained Megyesy. “The first year we tracked her from wetland to wetland, and eventually after crossing a road she nested in a residential environment. The second year it was amazing to watch her follow almost the exact path she had taken the previous year and nest again on the same property. It became clear that good nesting habitat was lacking within the core of these turtles’ territory and something needed to be done.”

Other females from other populations followed a similar pattern, each time increasing the chances of road mortality. Blandings turtles require sandy, well-drained areas with full sun for nesting and successful incubation. Female turtles dig a nest chamber, deposit eggs, cover the eggs with soil, and then depart, leaving the embryos and future young turtles to fend for themselves.

“For rare turtle populations to persist in New Hampshire, it is essential that adult female survival rates are high and that new young individuals are added to the populations,” Megyesy continued. “Turtles have coped with various threats by being able to live for a very long time, with some local species of turtles possibly exceeding 70 years! But low survival of young isn’t the only reason turtles must live a long time—female turtles of some species may not be capable of reproducing until they are at least 15 years old.”

Many of the monitoring and conservation actions for rare turtles in New Hampshire are made possible by federal programs, such as State Wildlife Grants administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service New England Field Office, along with matching state funding from the NH Conservation License Plate Program, and individual donations to the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. Biologists are also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to protect turtles and their habitats on private working lands in the state.

In areas where nesting habitat has been created, biologists are using time-lapse game cameras to monitor their effectiveness and the frequency with which female Blanding’s, spotted, and wood turtles use them. Results have been promising and are a positive step toward maintaining viable populations in New Hampshire.

Learn more about all of New Hampshire’s turtles at https://wildlife.state.nh.us/nongame/turtles.html.