Rare turtles released into Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge

Zane Razzaq
Metro West Daily News
Daily News staff


May 22, 2018


SUDBURY — After providing nine months of care, 16-year-old Trent George felt like he was saying goodbye to an old friend.

George was among several high school students who paddled canoes at a pond in the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge to reach the best spots to release about 50 rare Blanding’s turtle into the wild to ensure their long-term survival.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” said George, of releasing his favorite reptile, tagged #4454. “It’s like ‘all right, buddy, see you later.’”

Students took care to avoid areas where the water was too deep for the months-old turtles. Before they were released, all turtles were notched for individual identification. Later, scientists will return to the refuge to record how many survived.

George’s school, Bristol County Agricultural, partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex, University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, and Oxbow Associates, Inc., to help the endangered species.

Since 2010, sophomores in the school’s Natural Resource Management Program have raised hundreds of Blanding’s turtle hatchlings, guiding them through their first nine months of life. By giving them this “head start” in life, the turtles have a higher survival rate after release than their wild counterparts.

“Head-starting” refers to raising young animals in captivity until they are past their most vulnerable stage.

Blanding’s turtles are a medium-sized, semi-aquatic freshwater turtle that inhabits wetlands in parts of New England. Their most distinctive feature is orange markings on their necks and legs and a shell that resembles carved wood. Blanding’s turtles are unusual in that they usually show no sign of aging and can live to 80 if they reach maturity. They are regarded as an endangered species in Massachusetts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determining if federal listing under the Endangered Species Act is warranted.

Multiple factors have led to the species’ low numbers. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife cites habitat loss, unnaturally inflated rates of predators in suburban and urban areas, and agricultural practices among the reasons.

Kurt Buhlmann, a University of Georgia associate research scientist, said the project was a rare opportunity to help recover a population of the brink of extinction.

“We’re always fighting to rebuild populations,” said Buhlmann. “This is an opportunity to not just protect a species we already have but to rebuild another. This hasn’t really been done for species like turtles. These kids are on the cutting edge.”

im Angley, a New Jersey conservationist, called the project clever and proactive.

“This is thinking out of the box,” said Angley. “They’re not just sitting on their hands and doing nothing.”

Aggie student George, who lives in Norton, said raising the turtles was hard work but rewarding. This year, the project had a mortality rate of zero.

“The first few weeks, it’s kind of like a newborn where you have no idea what’s going on but you’re enjoying it. Then it’s like, OK … I got this,” he said.

Buhlmann smiled widely after all the turtles had been released.

“It’s good for kids to get dirty. I worry that if you don’t do this as a kid – get in a boat and stare at bugs, get your hands dirty – you won’t do it as an adult,” said Buhlmann.