acquaintance with the Gulf
Coast Turtle & Tortoise Society asked me to join a letter writing
campaign to save the Alabama red-bellied turtles which are listed as an
endangered species by the federal government. I said I would look into
it and do something.
You are probably
already aware that I like to present first hand information on TurtleTails.com
and to minimize repeating "book learned" knowledge. I have never seen an
Alabama red-bellied turtle and I have never been to the home range of these
turtles in the Mobile Bay area. For me to offer you my opinions and to
ask you to join in, I need something first hand. Emily my Florida red-bellied
turtle is my connection, my comparison, my link.
As you read what
I have to say and if you explore the links I am providing, I want you to
keep in mind what I always ask you to do. I want to cause you to think
about your own experiences and your first hand knowledge, and I want you
to decide for yourself what you want to do. I will express views that you
will probably not read anywhere else. I do not claim to be right. I do
believe that together we can make a difference and save these turtles.
Talking about Emily is like talking about one's children; you love them
equally and do not express favoritism. Emily is not my "favorite", but
she is the most remarkable turtle I have ever had. She is the largest turtle
I have ever had at eleven inches in carapace length and eight pounds. Size
alone distinguishes her to some extent. She is the only turtle I have ever
given the run of the house in winter. She is very intelligent and very
domesticated. She displays remarkable social behavior with our family.
To set the stage
for our discussion let me make the following comparisons between Emily
and some other water turtles. Emily is relatively slow and deliberate in
her movements. Out of the water she moves slower than many other water
turtles and barely lifts her plastron as she moves. She has little climbing
ability on land and does not raise her plastron off the ground when she
encounters a fence like many turtles do. When she approaches a drop off
like the edge of a deck, she does not plunge off. She considers vertical
drops carefully. On the other hand many water turtles that like to bask,
like painted turtles and map turtles, are fast moving and will plunge off
drops without hesitation.
I do not know, but
I suspect that the Alabama red-bellied turtles are very similar to the
Florida red-bellied turtles. If this is true, we not only need to save
them from extinction, we need to return them to abundance so that we can
know and appreciate them.
About the Alabama red-bellied
turtles: I am going to let you read about the Alabama red-bellied
turtles and their needs at the Save the Alabama Red-bellied Turtles Alliance
website. Please go there and read about them. Also go to every link on
that website for more information. Then come back here and continue.
the Alabama Red-bellied Turtles Alliance
Wildlife "Alabama Red-bellied Turtles"
Alabama "Alabama Red-bellied Turtle"
The Save the Alabama
Red-bellied Turtle Alliance is a part of the Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance,
Inc. which is a non-profit organization. Dr. Matthew Aresco is involved
Jackson Ecopassage Alliance, Inc.
If you want to learn
more about the places the Alabama red-bellied turtles inhabit, there is
a website, Place Names, that lets
you enter place names and it returns links to maps and aerial photos. These
maps and aerial photos will really help you understand the areas being
discussed. Just input any of the names you come across. For more background
on the Mobile Causeway go to the following websites:
Mobile Bay Causeway Part 1
Mobile Bay Causeway Part 2
In 2008 fencing
was finally erected along most of the roadway on the Mobile Causeway to
keep the turtles off the road. There are private properties with driveways
that still allow some turtles to make it onto the road. deaths have been
reduced but have not stopped. The fencing will slow the decline of these
turtles but not stop it. The fencing was paid for by the Alabama Department
About the Federal Recovery
Plan: The Alabama red-bellied turtles were placed on the Federal
endangered species list in 1987 and designated as endangered. In 1990 the
Red-bellied Turtle Recovery Plan was approved. The goal of the plan
is only to reclassify them from endangered to threatened status. Since
approval of the plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has done
almost nothing nor has any agency of the state of Alabama. Ironically Alabama
did make this turtle the state reptile in 1990.
Southeast Region's Mission Statement
of the Southeast Region, USFWS, July 2007
I would be wrong
to imply that listing the turtles as endangered has done no good. Designating
the turtles as endangered has reduced or stopped the collection of the
turtles and their eggs which has slowed their decline. The problem I see
with listing animals on federal and state endangered species lists is that
it almost assures the continued decline of the animals and the general
public can only sit by and watch it happen. We are forced by law as individuals
not to interfere. We can see the Alabama red-bellied turtles continue to
decline while the state of Alabama and the USFWS do nothing to save them.
In my opinion Abundance of Turtles
I state that all species of turtles found in the United States can be abundant
with no need to prohibit ownership of any species. The Alabama red-bellied
turtle is a perfect example to illustrate my point.
If when designated
as endangered, the USFWS had taken immediate action to return these turtles
to abundance, they could have achieved it by now. One solution could have
been the placement of some adult turtles into a captive breeding program
perhaps run by one of the commercial turtle breeding farms. The USFWS could
have retained ownership of the turtles and the turtles could have been
micro chipped for identification. Think of the number of turtles that could
exist today after twenty years of captive breeding.
Some people will
read this and immediately say why it can't be done or it should not be
done. Those who would argue why it should not be tried are only trying
to win an argument and are not trying to save the turtles. Only existing
in the wild until extinct is not a satisfactory plan or a solution. If
the attitude is that it can be done, it would be a success after twenty
years of working at it. Turtles do breed well in protected captivity.
In my opinion the
goal of USFWS should be to return these turtles to abundance with appropriate
protection of habitat and nesting sites and limitations on the taking of
I also believe that
breeding populations of these turtles should be established in other suitable
rivers so that the entire species can not be wiped out by one perfect storm
like Hurricane Katrina. There are written accounts that the species was
more widely distributed in the past. This is another point you will not
hear much about. After all they may not really be so critically endangered
if they exist elsewhere. They are also listed as endangered in Harrison
and Jackson counties in Mississippi.
Where we are now:
While there does not appear to be any government department doing anything
to save Alabama red-bellied turtles, it is a well documented fact that
many adults and hatchlings will still become road kill each year even with
the new fencing. The crows and furry predators are eating every egg and
baby turtle they can. And what are we doing, next to nothing. After all
we are prohibited from interfering with an endangered species.
There are some dedicated
scientists continuing to study these turtles and their habitat which is
very necessary work if the species is to survive in wild places. They are
also lobbying and presenting their findings to various organizations. Follow
the links to read about the work being done. Some of these scientists are
also asking us to write letters.
As I read the accounts of the problems these turtles are having, I noticed
that one common thread is us, our human activity. The nesting areas along
the causeway and on Gravine Island have been altered. We have altered the
landscape in a way the turtles like for nesting, but at the same time they
are more at risk to nest predators and traffic.
Some animals also
thrive living along side or in close proximity to people. I see more crows
now than I did as a boy; is this true along the causeway. Are the numbers
of fish crows increasing in the Mobile Bay area? How about raccoons, skunks,
and other furry turtle nest raiders? Has our presence accidentally favored
the predators. Feral pigs are also a big problem; they locate the nests
and eat the eggs.
I have read that
the Alabama red-bellied turtles like to dine on an invasive plant, the
hydrilla. Has our presence altered the balance of nature in a way in which
the Alabama red-bellied turtles are not able to compete successfully over
time even when they like many of the alterations we have made to their
environment. If we can tweak our alterations to restore a better balance
between turtles and their predators, should we not do so. Barriers to keep
most of the turtles off the roads is an obvious necessity. Barriers are
not the whole solution.
If the sand deposits
on Gravine Island have attracted too many turtles to the pearl of predators,
maybe new more isolated sand deposits in the delta would be beneficial.
Correctly placed sand deposits may be very beneficial and cost effective.
For this we definitely need the help and study of the scientists. This
would be a long term solution and not a quick fix.
If you are interested in helping save the Alabama red-bellied turtles from
extinction, more people must get involved. Everyone of you reading this
can get involved. Here are a few suggestions.
1. If you
are in driving distance, visit the Mobile Causeway and get a first hand
impression. It does not matter what time of year it is. Also visit the
office of the USFWS Alabama Ecological
Services Field Station at 1208-B Main Street, Daphne, AL 36526. Ask
them if it is too late to see these turtles before they are extinct. Ask
them what they are doing to save the turtles. Ask them what else is being
done to save the turtles and by whom. Ask them if it is true that hundreds
of turtles are killed on the causeway each year. And get the names of the
people you talk to.
The same applies
to anyone visiting the Mobile Bay area on business or the Gulf Coast on
vacation. Visit if you can. If you do visit, plan on returning during nesting
and hatching seasons if you can.
2. If you
do write letters which are superior to email, I suggest the same kind of
approach. If you have been there, say so or say you hope to visit. Talk
about what you saw and/or have read. Ask what is being done and by whom.
Ask how effective the new fencing on the causeway is at keeping the turtles
off the roadway. Ask how you can help. I am suggesting that you ask questions
and ask that your letters be answered. Be positive and do not criticize.
You want a response. Your letter may be ignored, but it will be harder
to ignore than a letter demanding a specific action.
A form letter you
copy and put your name on is not worth much. It will be lumped together
with similar letters and considered as one source. But form letters and
email are better than nothing.
Consider a written
response a very positive achievement. Look for clues in it for ways to
proceed, perhaps someone else to write to. If a clue does lead to writing
someone else, make reference to the letter you received and who wrote it.
Also send a thank you letter and ask more questions. Keep the dialog going!
3. If you
can get a response, leak (broadcast) it to others so that others can build
on it. Dr. Aresco has asked to be copied and is a good person to contact.
I am also willing to use this page of TurtleTails.com to relay
information to others. Information needs to be shared; no one will succeed
alone. We want to create an informed public outcry.
4. Visit the
website of the southeast office of the USFWS Alabama
Ecological Services Field Station. This office is just south of the
causeway. Then email people at the USFWS and ask why the Alabama red-bellied
turtle is not portrayed as an endangered species on their website. Ask
that they add information on this turtle species to their website. Also
ask to be notified by email when it is added. There is a list of the people
in that office on their website with email links. Email all of them and
you may get them buzzing.
You might also ask
if it is true that these turtles are being killed by the hundreds on the
causeway. Suggest that if it is true that you would find it more credible
reading it on their website. Be positive and supportive. We want them to
acknowledge the problem they are not addressing.
5. If you
live in Alabama, consider writing to your governor and representatives
suggesting that the state reptile be changed to another species you suggest
because you heard that the Alabama red-bellied turtles are on the fast
road to extinction. Explain that it is embarrassing to have your state
reptile pictured as road kill and soon to become extinct. Write similar
letters for the editorial pages of Alabama newspapers. Imagine the impact
it would have if such a letter was picked up by a national news agency,
network like the Fox News, or a national radio talk show. Try to shame
them into doing something.
6. If you
can, plan to get personally involved with a group or on your own. The possibilities
are numerous and I will mention a few.
Join, form, or have
a group you belong to take direct action to save these turtles. I believe
multiple groups are better than just one large umbrella group. The most
direct impact a group can have is to patrol the causeway moving turtles
out of harms way. Groups can also raise public awareness, lobby politicians,
and solicit support from businesses on the causeway. Groups do not have
to be organized as non profits to act.
There is a model
for groups to take direct action to save nests and babies. It requires
the approval of the USFWS. And it is taking place just a few miles south
of the Mobile Causeway. Check out these links:
the Beach Sea Turtle Volunteer Program
Sea Turtle Conservation Manual
On your own, if
you can get there, patrol the causeway moving turtles out of harms way
and protect turtles from crows while they lay their eggs. I am not suggesting
you be too outright in your appearance or attract attention to yourself.
Some people with good hearts take things the wrong way. But you can easily
drive, ride bicycle, or walk along the causeway. You can walk a dog and
carry binoculars like a bird watcher. Binoculars will also help you patrol
much more ground. Carry a blunt ended walking stick that will not penetrate
the sand and eggs such as a golfer's driver. You can use it to "drive"
off egg snatching crows. You could also carry a metal detector. If asked
say you are looking for the Lost Treasure of Alabamensis. Have a family
picnic on the causeway. Carry a back pack or lunch bag in case you come
across multiple baby turtles. Place baby turtles in the water.
While you are patrolling
you may come across other species of turtles which you will also wish to
move out of harms way. By all means do so.
7. Dr. Roger
Woods runs a program at The
Wetlands Institute at Stone Harbor, NJ to save diamondback terrapins.
The terrapins come on shore in mass during the day to lay eggs on the very
busy coastal islands. They are not deterred by the presence of people.
These turtles are very fast and many are struck by automobiles. Dead and
injured turtles and any spilled eggs are taken to the institute where as
many eggs as possible are salvaged and incubated at temperatures to produce
females. Hatchlings are head started and released as yearlings. I have
helped pick up turtles and release some yearlings.
are not disturbed unless they become tramped like I have seen on tennis
courts where people were playing tennis.
Dr. Woods has proven that
many eggs can be salvaged from injured turtles and produce baby turtles.
A similar program could be started on the causeway and include the eggs
of any injured turtles found. A few turtles may also be saved. The USFWS
station in Daphne is close enough to be directly involved. Their supervision
or oversight would probably be necessary to make it legal. And the USFWS
does have a formal program for volunteer participation. This would be a
great way for an organization, group, or individuals to put direct pressure
on the USFWS to do something to save these turtles and be directly involved
Whatever you do,
do not let the turtle eggs go to waste. Either handle them yourself or
take injured turtles and their eggs to the USFWS station in Daphne. If
you must, demand that they do something to save them!
8. If you
try some of these suggestions and you get nowhere, please let me know.
Remember it will take the actions of many people acting individually and
in groups to be effective. I am willing to be a sounding board. If you
do email me, put the word "Alabama" in the subject line.
If you have a website
or your organization has a website dealing with Alabama red-bellied turtles
and their plight, let me know and I will add a link on this page. If you
do not have a website and you want to start a group or find other interested
people to join up with, I am willing to list your request here.
I will not run a
forum, but I can be more timely than most organizations. So let me know
if I can help you help these turtles. I answer all email.
Thomas R. Schucker