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Spring Real Estate 2008: What developers and landowners should know about bog turtles

As with any project that involves construction, obtaining
environmental clearances is essential to successfully completing the
job. One such environmental regulation that could delay project
schedules and or affect the feasibility and costs of your project
involves protecting the bog turtle.

As with any project that involves construction, obtaining environmental clearances is essential to successfully completing the job. One such environmental regulation that could delay project schedules and or affect the feasibility and costs of your project involves protecting the bog turtle.

Found throughout 15 counties in southcentral and eastern Pennsylvania, as well as in other states, bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) are known to inhabit wetlands in Adams, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Delaware, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Schuylkill and York counties. More importantly, they are listed on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s (PAFBC) list of endangered species and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) list of threatened species.

So why is it important to know about bog turtles?

Since state and federal law strictly regulates land development that might disturb or impact bog-turtle habitats, anyone planning to develop parcels containing wetlands in these counties must comply with USFWS and PAFBC seasonal-search protocols. The most stringent of these regulations requires that projects impacting wetlands have a Phase I bog-turtle habitat assessment completed. If the Phase I habitat assessment identifies a potential bog-turtle habitat, a Phase II presence/absence survey must be completed between April 15 and June 15. Missing this two-month search window will delay projects at least one year.

The first step in identifying bog turtles involves conducting a Phase I survey, in which a USFWS-qualified bog-turtle surveyor conducts a field view to determine the presence or absence of potential bog-turtle habitat, which is typified by open, emergent wetland vegetation and soils with a soft, mucky substrate. If the Phase I survey detects a potential bog-turtle habitat, the qualified surveyor must complete a Phase II survey to confirm the presence or absence of any bog turtles on the property. The Phase II survey, however, can be conducted only between April 15 and June 15, when the turtles are above ground and active. Otherwise, the project will be halted until the Phase II survey work can be completed during the next April-June timeframe.

In addition to the tight timeframe, Phase II surveys require several trained scientists to spend a number of days conducting an on-foot search for the small creatures which, because of their size, can be difficult to find – bog turtles typically reach a maximum shell length of around four inches, making them the smallest turtle in Pennsylvania. If the Phase II survey does uncover bog turtles, the surveyor serves as a liaison between the municipal authority and federal/state agencies to achieve environmental compliance and obtain permits.

Prior to a project’s design phase, developers and landowners need to consider if there are any wetlands that could be affected by their project. Given the unforeseen challenges that developers might face with their project, it’s important to realize that the bog turtle could be one of those challenges, if the appropriate measures aren’t taken to preserve this endangered species.

To learn more about the rules and regulations surrounding bog turtles, visit http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/federal_register/fr3175.pdf .

Anthony Haubert is a public-relations specialist with Rettew and Tim Falkenstein is a senior biologist with the firm, which specializes in engineering, land development, land planning, surveying and environmental consulting. It has eight offices, including locations in Camp Hill and Lancaster.

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