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Organizations Join Forces to Protect Tiny Turtle

In Maryland, environmental officials are working to save one of the smallest and rarest turtles in North America. The bog turtle had the power to move an entire highway project in the state of Maryland. The tiny turtle is listed as an endangered species. It faces a disappearing habitat as well as poachers.

Craig Patterson, with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, uses a piece of equipment (resembling a hand-held remote control and antenna) to find a tiny bog turtle, underground.

"The transmitter that is on the turtle emits a signal," Patterson explains, "I can hear that signal with the headphones and as we get closer it gets louder and louder. And once we get near the turtle, we can point this at the ground, sweep and we usually know exactly where the turtle is."

Somewhere in these few hectares of protected land, some 35 turtles are living under the mud.

The bog turtle is one of the smallest in North America and is listed as an endangered species. Only several thousand survive.

They live in small pockets of wetland like this one, in a few states on the east coast of the United States. For the last 17 years, Scott Smith has been working with the turtles. Holding a turtle he says, "This one has had a chronic problem with an ear infection."

The male turtle was first found 12 years ago. Experts guess he is 40 years old and could live another 20. He weighs about 130 grams, and the transmitter on its back is 7 grams. The antenna helps scientist check regularly on his health, as well as on behaviors and places where he hibernates.

"These bog turtles spend a lot of time burrowing down in the mud, physically moving mud, opening up little areas for other animals to use and they are just kind of cute," Smith adds.

But being cute didn't help them. Julie Slacum from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service explains. "Part of the issue is loss of the habitat," she says, "but part of the issue was people going into the wetlands, taking the turtles and selling them illegally."

A slow reproduction process, predators and animals such as raccoons that eat turtle eggs also threaten their survival.

"Females have to be about 10-years-old when they first reproduce. They only reproduce once a year and they only lay 2 to 5 eggs," Smith said.

Development and changes in the waterways have dramatically altered the turtle's habitat.

Now, as the bog turtle faces extinction, local governments and environmental organizations have joined forces to protect it.

Years ago this area was scheduled to be paved for a highway.

At the State of Maryland Highway Administration, biologist Bill Branch has been looking after the turtles. "The original alignment was due to come through right in this area where we are standing right now," he explains, "When we found the bog turtle here about 15 or 20 years ago, we selected to move the alternative highway over on the other side of the hill so that we would avoid this area and protect the habitat for the bog turtle."

The highway, away from the turtles' protected area, is almost finished.

There are also efforts to restore the turtles' habitat.

Goats and sheep are now clearing invasive vegetation from the area, avoiding chemicals or machines that could threaten the turtles.