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Natural Heritage Elements - Species Level

 Important Turtle Habitat


                 Nesting, over-wintering, and foraging habitat are critical to the survival of turtle populations. Significant turtle nesting habitat may be defined as an area that provides the appropriate conditions for laying eggs that is within a reasonable distance of an aquatic environment used by turtles. Also, the nesting site should have the potential for regular use, and there must be a pathway between the aquatic environment and nesting area that the adult and young turtle can negotiate. Significant turtle over-wintering habitat is an area that provides suitable conditions for overwintering, where turtles are known, or have been known, to congregate. For wood turtles, significant turtle foraging habitat is a wide riparian buffer, often a few hundred feet, along an aquatic system.   



                 Turtles are a long-lived group of animals that face many threats from human activities. There are seven species that occur in Vermont : spiny softshell, spotted turtle, and stinkpot are rare in the state; map and wood turtles are uncommon; and painted and snapping turtles are common. Some species, like the wood turtle, are especially threatened because collectors value them. Nearly all of the species spend most of their time in aquatic environments, except for nesting. The wood turtle is the exception to this rule; it needs not only an intact aquatic system, but also a wide riparian buffer for foraging (Fowle, 2001). 

                The greatest challenge facing turtles is their ability to produce young. This requires finding a place to lay eggs where they will hatch without being eaten or disturbed and where the young hatchlings can safely make it to an aquatic environment. Turtles usually prefer a soft substrate such as sand or soil for nesting. An exception is the spiny softshell turtle that often nests on shale beaches. Sites that provide the most suitable nesting area may show evidence of heavy use by the presence of spent turtle shells. 

                Although painted turtles prefer nesting near water, they have been known to travel up to one-half mile in search of an appropriate nesting area. Nesting areas for the various other turtles include sandy beaches, sandy riverbanks, sandy blowouts, sandpits, and soft soils. Some areas, like undisturbed sand beaches, may be used year after year with several individuals laying eggs. Humans and predators, especially raccoons, threaten the unhatched eggs. 

                Winter is another critical period for turtles. In Vermont , turtles will dig down into soft saturated substrate, such as a riverbank or a muddy lake bottom, to spend the winter. Turtles have the ability to draw oxygen from the water through their skin. Several turtles will often congregate together to overwinter. As an example, up to 100 spiny softshell turtles are known to congregate in a localized area of Missisquoi Bay . Disturbances to these wintering areas, such as placing fill in the water, dredging, and drawdowns, can kill the over-wintering adults.   


Conservation Goals

                 A town or other planning group might adopt goals like these for the conservation of turtle nesting, over-wintering, and foraging habitat. 

1.        Ensure continued existence of important turtle nesting sites in the town or area of interest. 

2.        Conserve or provide long-term stewardship for connections between turtle winter or foraging habitat and nesting sites. 

3.        Protect or provide stewardship for areas of wide riparian buffers where wood turtles occur.   


Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources  

        See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

  • Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department: The Department has specific information on sites where some of the rare and uncommon species occur during nesting, foraging, and/or over-wintering.

  • The Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians of Vermont by Jim Andrews: This Atlas has town-level records of occurrence for all species. The information is incomplete because most towns have not had comprehensive surveys.
  • Knowledgeable individuals: Local turtle experts, naturalists, resource managers, and other outdoors people know of areas where turtles nest. 

Interpreting the Information  

                The level of detail of the information available from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is variable. Location data may be as general as the name of the water body or river stretch in which a species was observed. Sometimes it is more specific, providing information on the number of individuals seen as well as the locations of nesting sites, over-wintering sites, or foraging areas. Information from people with local knowledge is valuable and should be confirmed with additional field work.   


Conservation Strategies

         Once information has been gathered on turtle nesting, over-wintering, and foraging habitat, you can develop specific conservation strategies to help achieve your goals. Some examples of strategies for each goal stated follow. 


1. Goal: Ensure continued existence of important turtle nesting sites in the town or areas of interest.  


        a. Identify important turtle nesting habitat in the town by consulting knowledgeable individuals and conducting field work with the landowner's permission. 

        b. Educate landowners and resource managers about importance turtle nesting habitat in their area, especially those that are used by more than one individual turtle. Work with landowners and resource managers to manage known nesting sites to prevent human disturbance and predation. 

        c. Add nesting sites to an overlay district to restrict development of nesting sites and between nesting sites and foraging and over-winter habitats. 


2. Goal: Conserve or provide for long term stewardship connections between turtle winter or foraging habitat and nesting sites.  


        a. Identify over-wintering sites and the corridors between important turtle nesting, over-wintering and foraging habitat by using aerial photographs and other maps and conducting field work. 

        b. Provide for long-term stewardship or protection of these sites through landowner education, conservation easements, overlay districts, or other methods of conservation. 


3. Goal: Protect areas of wider riparian buffers where wood turtles occur.  


        a. Determine which streams harbor wood turtles by using the Atlas of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Vermont , by contacting the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, or by conducting field work. 

        b. Provide for long-term stewardship or protection of these corridors through landowner education, conservation easements, or other methods of conservation described in the 'Riparian and Aquatic Habitats' section of this manual.


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