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Threatened Bog Turtles Released in Georgia

June 24, 2005

Staff from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division (DNR/WRD), Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC), Tennessee Aquarium, U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Atlanta Botanical Garden, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held a press conference June 23, 2005 on the grounds of the Chattahoochee Nature Center to announce the successful release of federally and state listed bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in a restored mountain bog habitat in north Georgia. In an effort to conserve rare mountain bog flora and fauna, including the threatened bog turtle, these agencies formed a partnership to spearhead the Georgia Mountain Bog Enhancement Project, which includes the on-going Bog Turtle Headstart/Population Establishment effort. Financial support for this project was provided by sales of the DNR bald eagle/American flag license plate, as well as funding through the Federal Endangered Species Act and federal State Wildlife Grants program.

To ensure the continued survival of rare bog plants and animals, the Georgia Mountain Bog Enhancement Project team will strive to protect and enhance the few remaining mountain bogs on manageable, public lands, said WRD Wildlife Biologist and Project Coordinator Thomas Floyd.

The Bog Turtle Headstart effort began in 2003 with the gathering of egg-bearing female bog turtles from wild populations on private lands within Georgia. These females were monitored and allowed to deposit their eggs in captivity. The bog turtle eggs were incubated in a way that mimicked natural bog conditions. After hatching, the bog turtle hatchlings were transferred to the Tennessee Aquarium and CNC for the 22-month rearing period.

During June of 2005, the seven bog turtles that hatched in 2003 were released at a

restored mountain bog habitat in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Union County.

Before the release, four turtles were fitted with small radio transmitters that will allow biologists to monitor the turtle’s movements within the bog and locate each turtle to assess general health in the coming months, said Floyd.

Since the day of the release, each turtle has been located with radio telemetry equipment by staff from CNC and WRD.

So far the turtles appear content with their new home in the wild, evidenced by their limited movement away from the site of release, said Henning von Schmeling of CNC.

The Bog Turtle Headstart’s goal is to release approximately 20 juveniles per year to successfully establish a population over a five to ten year period. Although not reaching their annual goal, the Headstart program was able to rear twelve bog turtles in captivity in 2004 for the scheduled June 2006 release. Without hibernation and a continued feeding regime, Headstart bog turtles can reach adult size in two years and are ready for release. Bog turtles in the wild may take 6-8 years to reach adult size.

The bog turtle is a small freshwater species reaching only 4.5 inches in maximum length. It presents a prominent orange, yellow or red blotch on each side of the head behind the eye. Bog turtles are primarily active during spring, early summer and early fall and can be found basking on top of grass clumps and feeding on various sources like berries, insects, crayfish and tadpoles. During the winter and late summer months, bog turtles use mammal burrows and mucky soil as suitable retreats for hibernation.

The bog turtle is such a secretive species that it escaped detection in the north Georgia mountains until 1979 when a single turtle stumbled into one of my graduate research traps intended for ruffed grouse in the Chattahoochee National Forest, said Mike Harris, WRD Nongame Wildlife and Natural Heritage Section Chief.

Soon after Harris’ discovery, Ken Fahey, North Forsyth High School biology teacher and herpetologist, began studying the bog turtle within Georgia.

Perhaps the rarest reptile in Georgia, the federally threatened bog turtle is currently known from less than 10 sites in the state, only one of which is on public land and is capable of sustaining a long-term viable population with continued restoration and management, says Fahey.

Few high-quality and sizable mountain bogs remain in Georgia, most of which are in private ownership and are found along the relatively flat stream corridors in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rare mountain bog flora and fauna are concentrated in these few areas; however, management to maintain them in their early successional stage is exceedingly difficult. Many landowners are reluctant to allow state and federal agencies access to these sites

and even more reluctant to alter their land use for the benefit of bog loving wildlife.

In 1998, personnel with WRD, USFS as well as a host of volunteers initiated habitat restoration [woody-vegetation reduction] of a mountain bog community identified within the Chattahoochee National Forest, said USFS Wildlife Biologist Jim Wentworth.

U.S. Forest Service personnel conducted prescribed burning within the site in March of 2003 and 2005. Although additional habitat management and monitoring will be necessary in years to come, this site is now suitable for inhabitation by bog turtles and several rare bog plant species. In cooperation with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, bog plant species including the federally threatened swamp pink (Helonias bullata), the montane purple pitcherplant (Sarracenia purpurea ssp. venosa var. montana), and Carolina sheep laurel (Kalmia carolina) will be established within this restored mountain bog site in the near future.

Most of the mountain bog wetlands in North Georgia have been drained and converted to other uses over the years, as these flat areas are also ideal locations for towns, roads, reservoirs, and farms. Mountain bog plants and animals, probably never common, have become increasingly rare due to habitat disturbance as a result of stream impoundment, stream channelization, and human intolerance for allowing natural beaver disturbance, which creates the needed wetland areas for bogs to establish.

Georgians can support the conservation and protection of the bog turtle and their mountain bog habitats by purchasing a bald eagle/American flag license plate for their vehicles, or by donating to the Give Wildlife a Chance State Income Tax Checkoff. By purchasing a Give Wildlife a Chance nongame license plate for their vehicles, Georgians will continue to help DNR put tag dollars to work for wildlife.

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