ANNAPOLIS – Box turtles in the path of the looming Inter-County Connector are getting a second chance.
“What we’re doing is moving turtles out of the area prior to clearing for construction,” said Holly Shipley, the environmental compliance specialist for the ICC, a highway that will link Interstates 95 in Prince George’s County with I-370 in Montgomery County.
“We’ve gotten transmitters to put on the turtles collected to start tracking them,” Shipley said.
Catching and moving the turtles was one recommendation to the Maryland State Highway Administration from the Box Turtle Advisory Group, said Chris Swarth, a member of the group and director of the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary.
Professional herpetologists and federal and state resource biologists in the advisory group, which was formed in November, suggested ways to reduce the damage and destruction from ICC construction to Eastern box turtles.
Swarth said state officials “actually are agreeing to pick up most of the recommendations. They’ve been very receptive to ideas.”
Despite all the efforts to save the reptiles, the already-declining box turtle population is going to suffer, said Susan Hagood, wildlife issues specialist for the Humane Society of the United States.
“Whenever a major highway goes through a wildlife habitat, it’s irreversible and permanent damage,” she said.
But she acknowledged that the move to help the turtles is a good step.
“They didn’t have to make this effort because box turtles are not listed as endangered,” Hagood said. “They’re doing this because everyone realizes how vulnerable they (turtles) are.”
Olivia Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, agreed.
“For a highway project that involves turtles, this is going above and beyond,” Campbell said. “It’s not the norm for a regular construction project — we’re trying to address the environmental impact as best we can.”
DNR has gotten involved, surveying to see how many turtles are in the path of the highway.
“The project has been put on a fast track because we have just over a month before the turtles start burrowing and going into hibernation, so we’re moving pretty quickly to assess the situation,” Campbell said.
Much of the plan is still up in the air: Shipley said the moving will begin as soon as possible, but had no specific date. Some turtles may go to holding areas along the ICC corridor, she said, and some may be moved to Montgomery County parks.
“A lot of this project is still in the feasibility stage,” Campbell said.
But advocates for the turtles hope the highway administration will do more.
“We’re hoping that the state will fund a study to follow the turtles and see how well they survive and where they go,” Hagood said. “Turtles are notorious homebodies that can navigate by the magnetic field of the earth and the sun to try to get home.”
Still, she worries about the environmental impact of each turtle lost.
“It is the incremental loss of individuals that leads to an endangered status,” she said.
“Not all box turtles will be saved — that’s not possible,” said Swarth. “But every turtle saved is worth it.”