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Operation Box Turtle Rescue

A community, a developer, and an HSUS turtle expert (and her dogs) work together to relocate doomed turtles

  • Eastern box turtles need substantial roadless habitat if the species is to survive. Colin Barnett

  • When development came to their Maryland home, a population of box turtles were in dire need of rescue. Susan Hagood/The HSUS

  • With the help of turtle-sniffing dogs, the team of HSUS staff and community volunteers were able to find and rescue 63 turtles. Susan Hagood/The HSUS

by Susan Hagood, Ph.D.

The future looked grim for a Maryland population of eastern box turtles—a species on the decline, listed in Maryland as in greatest need of conservation. But community activists, the developer, and The HSUS worked together.

A concerned community

Washington Grove, a town near Washington, D.C., bills itself as “A Town Within a Forest.” “Grovers” are quick to resist threats to the town’s character posed by the region’s rapid urbanization.

For years, residents had raised concerns about the impact that a development planned across a narrow lane from the town would have on the box turtles they’d observed during walks in the woods and in their yards and gardens.

A call from the developer

Toll Brothers, the 8th largest residential development company in the U.S., proposed to clear 15 acres of woods and meadows to construct town and single-family homes.

Spurred by community concern, Senior Land Development Manager Jeff Driscoll, contacted The HSUS to ask what might be done for the turtles. I thanked Jeff for coming to us, and we got down to business.

Why it’s hard to relocate box turtles

Many studies have shown that box turtles, like most wild animals, don’t stay where they are relocated. Box turtles navigate by the sun and magnetic field of the earth to attempt to return home. If they are moved far enough away, they may not head out in a homeward direction, but they tend to wander extensively, as though looking for a place that feels like “home.” The state wouldn’t grant a collection permit unless we agreed to conduct a study of their success in their new habitats, which we did.

The great turtle search

With the help of wonderful community volunteers such as John and Carolyn Tomlin (who first pressed for turtle protection), Ann Philips, Sally Hunt, Joan Harlin, and some intrepid turtle-detecting dogs, we began looking for turtles. The best weather for finding box turtles is generally in summer, but we had only a few weeks in the late fall. To my amazement, we found 63!

What do we do with the turtles?

We weighed, measured, permanently marked for future identification, and photographed the turtles and released most in a county park (with permission of the county park authority) that has what I think is some of the best turtle habitat in the area (I hope the turtles agree).

We’re keeping those who seem too light to survive the winter (on top of the stress of relocation), those obviously ill, or those small enough to be vulnerable to predators indoors, most with turtle caretaker extraordinaire, Sandy Barnett. We’ll release them when they’re ready.

What about the other wildlife?

Toll Brothers also permitted volunteers to access the property to help other animals in harm’s way. Harassing woodchucks and foxes by stuffing leaves, sticks, and loose soil down their burrows is often enough to provoke these animals to relocate on their own, and volunteers were diligent in their efforts to reduce the chances that these animals could be entombed by the clearing and grading to come.

We moved toads, garter snakes, and saddleback moth larvae to the safe side of the construction fence. And of utmost importance, the forest will be cleared in the late fall, when the effects on nesting birds, squirrels, and raccoons will be minimized.

Working on collaborations and regulations

This is the first such collaboration between The HSUS and a major national residential development company, and we are very grateful for Toll Brothers’ leadership and cooperation. The HSUS will use this project as an example of how the impact of development on wildlife can be reduced.

At the same time, we will continue to work with state and local authorities to implement regulations that encourage developers to design projects that minimize the destruction of natural habitat, that time clearing operations to reduce the impact on wildlife populations, encourage burrowing animals to relocate on their own, and—where possible and permitted—consider whether relocation will give those most vulnerable species, like box turtles, a second chance at a future in the wild.

Learn more about threats to turtles in urban areas


Susan Hagood is Wildlife and Transportation Regulatory Specialist for The HSUS.

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