Federal program pulls large freshwater turtle back from edge of extinction

“Conservation” is no longer enough. Instead of just saving what’s left we need to restore what’s lost.

In 1971 the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game existed to serve sportsmen who provided our salaries by buying hunting and fishing licensees. The agency’s basic management philosophy was: If you can’t legally kill it, it’s not wildlife.

At that time there were, at best, 300 Plymouth redbellies on the planet, most geriatric. Reproduction had all but ceased. Extinction appeared imminent.

Public priorities changed during the 1970s. In 1983 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Massasoit National Wildlife Refuge, primarily to recover redbellies.

In 1985 there were no redbellies in East Head Pond. But that was the year the division’s robust Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (non-existent when I worked for the agency) began its “headstart” program by which captive hatchling redbellies are raised all winter. Come spring, they’re about the size of mature painted turtles and therefore pretty safe from predators. It’s the largest freshwater turtle headstart program in the world.

Last year division biologists counted 40 redbelly nests around East Head, every one constructed by a headstarted female.

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