Letter to the Editor: Blanding’s Turtle Species Threatened by Bike Trail Expansion

~Submitted by Patty Dahlgren

You may know me as the gal to call for Opossum rescue, or Hanscom Field projects.  Now I ask for your help to save rare, threatened Blanding’s Turtles.  Please vote NO to paving the Reformatory Branch Trail (RBT).   

Local Expert Dr. Bryan Windmiller educated Bedford residents recently (watch at savereformatorytrail.org on his work of almost 2 decades monitoring and “headstarting” Blanding’s. I value his expertise on the impact of turning the RBT into the Minuteman Bikeway Extension. It’s not good news for these rare turtles. 

Baby Blanding's Turtle being held in fingertips
Blanding’s Turtle babies, “who are black and about the size of a half-dollar, must also cross the RBT. It’s the babies who especially would face direct mortality and injury in bicycle collisions.” Image provided by Bija Satterlee

Blanding’s have territory in Great Meadows and the surrounding area, including West Bedford. There are only about 24 nesting females, many are elderly. Most turtles cross the RBT to lay eggs and then cross back into the Refuge. Later their babies, who are black and about the size of a half-dollar, must also cross the RBT. It’s the babies who especially would face direct mortality and injury in bicycle collisions. “If I’m riding along at an even a modest clip of 10-12 miles per hour, and I look pretty carefully, I would have a pretty poor likelihood of seeing a small, black spec,” said Dr. Windmiller. 

Dr. Windmiller explained that Blanding’s face 3 threats if Bedford’s RBT is widened and paved. “The RBT in Bedford does not end at a brick wall,” he said. More and faster traffic would head into Blanding’s territory. 

All Blanding’s would face an increased risk of poaching as unfortunately there’s a global market for them. Additionally, increased traffic makes it more likely they would have increased energy expenditure and risk of overland movements to avoid crossing the RBT. This would cause them to spend more time on land where they’re more vulnerable. Babies are tiny and “faced with a large, scary stimulus,” Dr. Windmiller said, “they’re likely to just hunker down and stay put.” 

Vote NO on Article 10 at the Town Meeting on November 14 to Save the Blanding’s Turtles and their babies from being smushed, poached, or eradicated.  Save our Blanding’s!   

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Steve Dahlgren
October 27, 2022 1:41 pm

Bike riders have numerous alternative routes to choose from. These little guys have none. Nature takes a backseat all too often, let’s put it first this time. Thank you.

Bija Satterlee
October 27, 2022 11:09 am

The paving project in Bedford would become a 22′ wide road, bringing high volume and high speed traffic right into the woodland nesting area of Blanding’s turtles in Concord. It may not affect Blanding’s turtles IN BEDFORD, but it will affect Blanding’s IN CONCORD.

All the new traffic won’t turn around and go back where the pavement ends!

There are only a couple dozen nesting females left, some of them are 80 years old, and juveniles don’t reach sexual maturity until about 12 years old. Any mortality is a severe blow to this threatened population.

Dr. Windmiller’s program of protecting and head-starting baby turtles has improved their survival. But pouring additional high speed traffic into their nesting territory will tip the scales backwards against them. They are small, slow-moving, hard to see, and high traffic on the trail deters them from crossing. Please vote NO on 10.

McClain, John
October 27, 2022 12:53 pm
Reply to  Bija Satterlee

Where are you getting 22′ from? I am told the current trail conditions on the portion in Bedford keep speeds down, the trail condition in Concord if anything are worse — why won’t they continue to keep speeds down?

Tim Bennett
October 30, 2022 12:01 am
Reply to  Bija Satterlee

If trail conditions are supposedly the only thing keeping speeds down on the Reformatory Trail, then why would paving one section in Bedford impact the speed on another section? If anything, your argument about increased traffic going into Concord would keep speeds down as more people have to deal with congestion on the inferior and unpredictable conditions of the Concord portion.

McClain, John
October 27, 2022 9:30 am

I find the claim that the Minuteman Extension will somehow increase crime, in this case poaching, extremely disheartening. Increased crime was an augment made 30+ years ago against the original Minuteman Path project. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. I had hoped we had moved past this sort of fear mongering.

Lori Eggert
October 27, 2022 9:25 am

Dr. Windmiller and others agree that paving the trail and facilitating increased vehicular traffic in priority habitat for threatened species is a bad idea. The absence of dead turtles now shows that what we have now is working.

Mr. Richichi reports that he hasn’t seen any dead or injured turtles in the Great Meadows and yet he endorses the asphalt and concludes that this will not adversely affect the environment. This makes no sense. 

Ms. Wolk seems to believe that we have to kill turtles to prove that turtles will be killed.
She also says that Concord has options, implying they have to fix problems that Bedford creates.  Rather than killing turtles and hoping Concord can fix the problem, how about we just not create the problem in the first place?

What we’re doing now is working.

Nancy Wolk
October 28, 2022 2:50 pm
Reply to  Lori Eggert

I never said we have to kill turtles. How disingenuous of you.

There’s no evidence by Dr Windmiller that turtles are currently being injured or killed by bike/ turtle interactions. A claim like that requires evidence.

Tim Bennett
October 30, 2022 12:06 am
Reply to  Lori Eggert

Mrs. Wolk is clearly saying that even though the Concord portion is used daily by cyclists, there have been no cases of turtles being affected as Dr. Windmiller claims they would be by bikers. She is pointing out that the data that we have about bikes on the path does not support that claim, not that we should “kill turtles”, because the evidence right now clearly shows that would not happen if we were to pave the path in Bedford.

Frank P Richichi
October 26, 2022 6:46 pm

Dr. Stephanie Koch is the US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist responsible for Great Meadows in Concord and Sudbury. In conversations with her and Linh Phu, her boss, I was told that there is no threat to the Blanding’s Turtles along this path. Dr. Brian Windmiller was also in agreement. As a Great Meadows volunteer, it is my responsibility to report photos and a description of all Blanding’s turtles, dead, injured or healthy to Dr. Koch. One of the volunteers are at Great Meadow almost every day of the week.
In the 5 years I have worked with this crew we have not reported a single dead or injured turtle. The predators of the baby turtles are natural (raccoons, bull frogs etc.) Fortunately, many are raised in classrooms until they are large enough to not be eaten by bullfrogs when released into the refuge.

Poaching has never been an issue at the refuge for any species of bird, animal, amphibian or plant. There is no reason to believe that paving this section of path would change that. Pedestrians can currently enter from many locations in Bedford and Concord as ell as from the Great Meadows parking lot. That would not change.  

Bryan Windmiller
October 27, 2022 1:03 pm

Thank you, Frank, for your work at Great Meadows.
You note that the volunteers at GM, who are there daily, have never found a dead or injured Blanding’s turtle over the past 5 years. Just this year, however, in the relatively small sample of that population that we radiotrack, we found several dead individuals. This simply highlights the fact that dead turtles are difficult to find – not finding them dead does not mean that they don’t die.

I would make a similar point about poaching. Like you, I know of no documented instances of poaching Blanding’s turtle as Great Meadows. However, how would I know of such instances unless a poacher was caught in the act? There is some evidence that Blanding’s turtle nests have been poached at Oxbow NWR and several years ago, law enforcement seized more than 30 poached Blanding’s turtles that were likely taken from somewhere in New England. My point is simply that, 1) unfortunately, the poaching of rare turtles does occur with great frequency (for example, more than 4,000 instances of turtle poaching were recorded in Florida alone in a 6 moth period in 2019 – see: https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/FLFFWCC/bulletins/266e905, and 2) inevitably, increasing the number of people that come into close contact with rare turtles increases the odds that poaching will occur.

My team and I at Zoo New England work closely with Dr. Stephanie Koch of USFWS. I would let Dr. Koch express her own opinion on this and other matters that might affect species that use the national wildlife refuges that she helps manage.

Nancy Wolk
October 28, 2022 2:54 pm

When I asked in your public talk, you clearly stated that only 1 turtle had been found dead by the trail. There was a neck injury. That was the extent. Did you suddenly find a cache of dead turtles by the path? Or are you reporting deaths from elsewhere at Great meadows?

McClain, John
October 28, 2022 7:20 pm

“inevitably, increasing the number of people that come into close contact with rare turtles increases the odds that poaching will occur.”, as Frank says, “Pedestrians can currently enter from many locations in Bedford and Concord as well as from the Great Meadows parking lot.”,

Do you really think extending the Minuteman Trail to Concord Road is going to give poachers increased access to Great Meadows? Are there poachers who will be enabled by improving the path in Bedford, but then not stymied by trail unchanged conditions in Concord?

Multi-use paths have not been associated with an increase in crime anywhere, why will it be different in this case?

Nancy Wolk
October 26, 2022 4:26 pm

Dr. Windmiller clearly stated that the changes in Bedford do not affect turtles in Bedford. He reported turtles killed in car/turtle interactions. When I asked how many turtle have been killed by bicycles, he answered that only one turtle might have been killed. It had neck trauma, but there was no evidence that it had been killed by a bike.

I also asked what education is being done currently. Dr. Windmiller said they haven’t posted signs for people to slow down and watch for turtles.

In the end of his presentation, Dr. Windmiller produced some fairly dire conclusions, yet he did not present a single bit of evidence to support those conclusions. Basically, as a scientist, this was someone claiming the sky was falling with zero evidence.

Concord has many options if there is evidence of turtle injuries including education, requiring walking during migration times and turtle tunnels under the RBT in Concord.

He also presented zero evidence that poaching is something that is rampant in our region. With more people on the path, some one could counter argue that more people would notice poaching.

Claims such as Dr. Windmiller require evidence and he presented none. I appreciate that he gave such a good talk, and I am thrilled to hear how his group’s work has helped this species, but he gave no evidence of turtles being hurt by bicycles.

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