Wildlife: Conservation laws backfire on bog turtles

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Protecting wildlife populations seems a simple way to manage and conserve our wild resources. But protective laws do not always work.

The bog turtle, for example, is rare and found only in scattered parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. I've never seen a bog turtle in the wild, and I doubt that few who read this have.

Bog turtle distribution is clearly discontinuous, and that's a problem. It is a turtle of open wetlands and wet meadows. Such habitats are widely scattered making it impossible for small turtles to move from one population to another.

Furthermore, wetlands are constantly encroached upon by plant succession. If undisturbed over time, wetlands transform into shady forests as trees invade. Then it's good-bye bog turtles. Adding human actions that drain wetlands for various types of development exacerbates the problem.

Now consider that bog turtles are small and beautiful. They measure just 4 inches long as adults, and their shells and bodies are dark with bright orange or yellow blotches on their necks behind the ears. Small size and bright colors make them "cute" targets for the pet trade.

So why not simply outlaw the capture and sale of bog turtles? It's been done -- they are protected by state and federal laws everywhere they occur.

But in a black market where a single bog turtle can fetch hundreds or even a thousand dollars, conservation laws don't work. When new populations are discovered and revealed, the turtles quickly disappear. That's why I'm not giving more precise information about where they live.

"Whenever species get listed as threatened or endangered, they increase in value," said Pennsylvania herpetologist Carl Ernst, co-author of "Turtles of the United States and Canada" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and professor emeritus at George Mason University. "And that makes collectors want them even more."

If you see a bog turtle in a pet shop, report it to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Southwest Region Law Enforcement Office at 814-445-8974.

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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