Endangered Species Report #30
Eastern Box Turtle

Written by: Holly L. Koppel

If you live in a heavily developed area in the eastern United States, you have most likely come across an eastern box turtle trying to cross the road at some point. These turtles, though not listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are considered threatened by many conservationists. Loss of habitat, collisions with cars, and illegal trade have made the eastern box turtle scarce in some of its native ranges.

Since the U.S. government does not recognize the eastern box turtle as an endangered species, it has very little protection from developers and pet owners. Some states have enacted laws to protect them; however, in some states the pet trade is still thriving. In Maryland, for example, it is illegal to sell box turtles in pet stores and Maryland officials periodically will "raid" local pet stores to make sure that the owners are following the law. This has cut down on the amount of box turtles sold illegally in Maryland pet stores, but many others are just taken out of the wild and kept as pets for children.

Despite the turtles adaptability to their changing habitat, many box turtles do not respond well to the captive environment. Many people who keep box turtles as pets are usually unfamiliar with the turtle and how to care for it properly. Box turtles prefer habitats that range from open fields to dense forests with a lot of leaf cover. Turtles will spend much of their day buried in leaves or dirt on the forest floor, emerging only to feed. For many kids, this would not be their ideal pet, and unfortunately many get bored with their unresponsive turtles and end up leaving them on the roadside somewhere hoping that the turtle will find it's own way home.

For the box turtle, this is one of the worst things that can happen to them. Part of the reason this is so catastrophic for the turtle is because of their homing sense. Turtles will oftentimes try to return to their home, even if it is cut down for development. Unfortunately, this leads to the second problem, which is the number one cause of box turtle deaths-car collisions. Unlike deer or cats that just bolt across the road, the turtle is not as fast and has a higher likelihood of getting hit by a speeding motorist. Some people, noticing a turtle attempting to cross a road, will get out of their car and help them off the road. The thing to remember here is that turtles will keep heading in the direction they were originally going. If you do go to help a turtle on the road, always remember to try and place them in a patch of woods close to where they were headed, so they will just continue on in that direction into the woods. Scientists try to stress the importance of moving the turtle into the woods near where it was heading, as the turtles crossing the roads are usually transients.

Transients are young turtles less than nine years old, just striking out on their own. They are known to move only in one direction through their environment, and they rarely turn back and go in the opposite direction. Since these are young box turtles, you want to be extra careful and make sure they are alright since they are part of the future of box turtles.

If there are no woods on the other side of the road, the best thing to do is to find a patch of woods as close to where the turtle was heading and relocate them there. Conservationists are constantly arguing over what the best course of action is for these transient turtles, but most do agree that if you must relocate them, try to relocate them close to where you found them. If you find an injured turtle crossing the road, you can also call a rescue organization and see if they will care for the turtle until it can be released back into the wild.

At the present time, conservationists are at a loss for what to do to lessen the number of turtle deaths to cars. Without the backing of the government, there is little that can be done, aside from alerting motorists when they enter areas that are prime turtle habitat, and making sure that stranded turtles or transients find a safer environment. Another helpful measure would be to try and keep motorists aware of times when the turtles are most active, right after a thunderstorm and in the early morning, so that they can be more alert while driving.

Government officials are starting to take notice of the plight of the eastern box turtle and it is now listed as a threatened species by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES); however, this still does little to help the turtle to survive. This is one of the few times conservationists have had a chance to help a species before it becomes critically endangered, and yet very few people are actually willing to do anything. The government does not want to curb development in turtle habitat areas because it brings in money and jobs, and people are very unwilling to slow down and watch for turtles while driving on back roads.

This leaves us with little hope in helping this species before it does become critically endangered. Children frequently want turtles as pets and despite warnings, parents will usually cater to their children's demands, thus keeping a turtle in a tiny terrarium - keeping yet another healthy turtle from breeding and increasing the population. What we need to do to help this species is to continue to push to have them listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thereby giving them protection under the Endangered Species Act. We must also follow Florida's lead by creating wildlife overpasses so that turtles can safely move about in their surroundings without the threat from motor vehicles. Unfortunately, until people take the plight of the eastern box turtle seriously, there is little conservationists can do aside from just trying to educate the public and keeping their eye out for them on the roadways.