Emily Koai, LRWP Raritan Scholar Intern Spring 2020
New Jersey’s habitat faces significant barriers due to an expanding urban landscape. Ecosystems of interdependent flora and fauna are interrupted by the hustle and bustle of high-volume traffic and concrete, man-made passages of culverts. This juxtaposition gives us pause to reflect on what can be done to help wildlife connect to their habitats across our built environment. We are prompted consider our urban landscape and promote connectivity between our natural spaces and to improve and enhance the relationship between our natural environment and our urban communities.
Originally scheduled for March 16th, the LRWP’s much anticipated habitat connectivity workshop was held virtually on May 4. Many thanks to our partners – Middlesex County Office of Planning, NJDEP, and NY/NJ Harbor Estuary – for persevering and helping us bring these tools and knowledge to participants via a virtual platform! A video of Mr. Zarate’s presentation is now on youtube.
Working with tools shared during the workshop, our friend Herve Barrier created an inaturalist project for the Lawrence Brook subwatershed. Herve explains: “I copied the borders, street by street, using the CHANJ map, after selecting only the ‘watershed’ layer. I am working to make it more and more precise.” Feel free to add your own observations to the growing tally of almost 12,000 observations in the Lawrence Brook sub-watershed! Interested in starting an inaturalist page for another sub-watershed of our Lower Raritan? Let us know!
To kick things off, Isabelle Stinnette explained how she and her team from the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program set out to explore potential passages for our diadromous and potadromous fish friends through their Aquatic Connectivity Through Climate-Ready Infrastructure Project. What they found were tens of culverts and barriers in the Lower Raritan that obstruct the passability for aquatic wildlife. Blocked up by debris and soil, many of these sites have the potential to be opened up or mitigated into effective passages, a sentiment that excited volunteers. This project uses the North Atlantic Connectivity Collaborative protocols (www.naacc.org) in concert with a hydraulic model to make recommendations for connectivity restoration in New Jersey watersheds.
To help illustrate the potential for these obstructed passageways, Brian Zarate, along with Gretchen Fowles, the originator of CHANJ (Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey), helped bring habitat connectivity to our screens. Launched in 2019, CHANJ provides innovative tools that map out natural land cover in relation to our urban environments and further guidance “to help prioritize land protection, inform habitat restoration and management, and guide mitigation of road barrier effects on wildlife and their habitats”. Layer by layer, the mapping tool reveals the islands of greenery our wildlife seek refuge in and, connecting them, corridors or stepping stones, pit stops for our terrestrial friends. With ease of access to information about each core, recommendations, and even NAACC protocols utilized by Isabelle and her team, the tools of CHANJ bring us closer to our goal of habitat connectivity.
We are now presented with an opportunity to consider fish ladders, debris removal, and underpasses to help aid wildlife carry out their natural life cycles. The branch now extends to our municipal partners, counties, and DoTs to consider this opening to administer changes that will help build bridges across built environments for our wildlife
Indicative of urban sprawl, the visible islands for wildlife now have evolving needs for preservation. Whittled down to beige and green corridors and stepping stones on our screens, CHANJ and the work of the HEP gives us the means to see opportunities for connections between our natural and built environments. Wildlife have had to adapt to their altered environments as development slowly engulfed their living quarters. With green islands surrounded by the liveliness that is our urban environment, our role as stewards now extends to the advocation of habitat connectivity to help enhance our relationship between our natural environments and urban communities.
Whether on the statewide, local, or backyard scale, CHANJ can help us to visualize our place in New Jersey’s habitat connectivity puzzle and to take steps to preserve and restore important linkages for wildlife across the landscape.
Not sure where to begin? Don’t sweat, the CHANJ Mapping Tutorial will walk you through it! This step-by-step video shows you how to use our online interactive CHANJ Web Viewer (mapping tool), so you’ll be up to cruising speed in about 10 minutes.
Want to learn more about habitat connectivity in New Jersey? See PBS’s Eco Sense for Living’s “Wild Crossings” special feature highlighting local habitat connectivity work.
How should we assess areas for habitat connectivity in our urban watersheds? How can we build support for biodiversity planning in our urban core?
In this half day workshop we will learn how to use tools developed by NJDEP to help assess habitat connectivity needs, and hear from NY/NJ Harbor Estuary about findings from recent citizen science connectivity assessments.
To kick things off, we will hear from Isabelle Stinnette with NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program who will discuss findings from their Aquatic Connectivity Through Climate-Ready Infrastructure Project. This project uses the North Atlantic Connectivity Collaborative protocols (www.naacc.org) in concert with a hydraulic model to make recommendations for connectivity restoration in New Jersey watersheds.
Following Ms. Stinnette’s presentation we will hear from NJDEP zoologist Brian Zarate and his team who will introduce the statewide habitat connectivity plan called Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey (CHANJ), launched last year by the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife. NJDEP will provide an overview of the major tools that CHANJ offers to guide a multi-scale, all-hands-on-deck approach to improve landscape and roadway permeability for wildlife, demonstrate the new interactive, web-based CHANJ Mapping tool, and show how it can be used to help guide land protection and management and to mitigate barriers to wildlife movement – goals that are particularly urgent in the face of climate change and urbanization.
This online workshop will run from 9:30 am – 12:30 pm on Monday May 4.
Isabelle Stinnette is the Restoration Manager at the New York – New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program (HEP), where she runs the inter-agency restoration work group, tracks restoration progress in NJ and NY, and works with partner agencies to further habitat restoration efforts. Prior to joining HEP, she worked for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as a Restoration Biologist as well as Research Technician expediting storm recovery and resiliency projects. Isabelle has a M.S. degree from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at Stonybrook University and a B.A. from St. Lawrence University.
Brian Zarate is a Senior Zoologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP). He coordinates the state’s reptile and amphibian conservation work and leads a statewide wildlife initiative called Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey (CHANJ). After receiving his BS in Natural Resource Management from Rutgers University in 2001, Brian worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska and then returned to New Jersey to begin employment for the Division. Until 2007 Brian worked under contract for the state through the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey not-for-profit agency and then was hired by ENSP later that year. Brian serves on committees and boards for the Wildlife Habitat Council, American Turtle Observatory, NRCS, and the Highlands Council. He’s currently a national co-chair for Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) and a long-standing member of the Northeast PARC steering committee.
Article by Joseph Mish, photos by Joseph Mish and Brian Zarate
A moment in the sun. The elusive and rare bog turtle, aka Muhlenberg turtle, is captured in this image by Brian Zarate.
The smallest and rarest turtle in NJ has emerged from the obscurity of its muddy bog to celebrity status as the bog turtle was recently named New Jersey’s state reptile.
The bog turtle was first scientifically cataloged by botanist Gotthilf Muhlenberg at the approach of the 19th century. In honor of the discoverer, this diminutive reptile was named Clemmys muhlenbergii. It was commonly known as the Muhlenberg turtle until the vagaries of taxonomic nuance christened it the bog turtle, one hundred and fifty-six years later.
The bog turtle averages a bit less than four inches in length. To visualize its size, write its scientific name on a piece of paper and that length will approximate the size of the turtle.
The blaze orange patch on the side of its head provides unmistakable and instant identification. The orange color glows like a brilliant gem. Stare at it for a moment and the turtle magically materializes from its muddy background.
The overall appearance of the turtle is a grayish black, though on closer inspection there are varying degrees of dull orange skin and freckles especially at the base of the front legs, neck and face. The carapace or ‘top shell’ is covered by ridged scutes or horny segments, comparable to fingernails. Faint amber markings may sometimes be seen on the shell, their appearance dependent on age or accumulated mud.
The small size, secretive habits and specialized habitat requirements restrict the presence of this turtle to very defined regions of the state.
As its name suggest, these turtles prefer open boggy areas fed by clear springs or streams. Skunk cabbage and jewelweed, aka, ‘touch me not’, are easily identifiable plants commonly found in bog turtle habitat. Pasture lands are desirable locations as plants and grasses are kept in check by grazing cows to maintain optimum preferred habitat. Deep mud, constantly infused with spring water, provides ideal hiding places and protection from freezing during winter hibernation.
Tree stumps protruding from the bog and raised islands are preferred locations to lay eggs. Females seek these drier places within the bog to lay eggs as opposed to other turtle species which travel quite far from home.
To illustrate the secret life of the bog turtle, a friend who was a conservation officer, stopped to investigate a car parked alongside a road in north Jersey. He came upon two researchers following signals from a bog turtle equipped with a transmitter as part of a study project. Nothing could be seen to indicate a turtle was present. The signal, however, indicated its precise location and after digging deeply into the mud, there was the turtle alive and well!
Bog turtles are considered to one of the rarest turtle species in the United States.
The bog turtle had been declared ‘endangered’ by the state in 1974 and ‘threatened’ by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997. Population estimates are speculative, as some articles cite the total population in the eastern US as 2,500 to 10,000 and ‘fewer than 2,000’ turtles in NJ. The Bog Turtle Project states 168 colonies have been identified. Equal distribution of 2,000 turtles over 168 locations cannot be assumed and further emphasizes the rarity of this precious gem.
Among the locations identified, there are a select few, which have a large enough gene pool to ensure a viable population into the future. While turtles found in isolated micro habitats are vulnerable to insufficient genetic variation.
In both situations the loss of contiguous habitat is a deadly threat, as a segmented environment limits migration and thus genetic variation as well as exposing animals to predators, mowers and vehicles.
Loss of habitat is a major threat to bog turtles as well as many other species.
Invasive plants, like the familiar purple loosetrife and phragmites, dominate areas to destroy plant diversity and alter soil porosity which in turn eliminates the cascade of insect and invertebrate life upon which the bog turtle feeds.
Whenever I see a turtle, I always wonder how old it might be and compare it to events in my life. Most age ranges provided for wild creatures are speculative and based on captive animals or hard data collected from tagged wild animals. A bog turtle tagged in 1974 and estimated to be about 30 plus years at the time was again found in 2017, which places its estimated age at around 65 – 70 years old! That age range allows young and old to ponder what was going on in their life at any point in that turtle’s parallel life.
Thirty something years ago when that turtle burrowed deep into the mud to hibernate, my daughter was born in Muhlenberg hospital. A local hospital named after the son of the discoverer of the bog turtle, aka Muhlenberg turtle. The legislation to proclaim the bog turtle the official state reptile was co-sponsored by Kip Bateman of Branchburg. It would be a further coincidence to find and report the discovery of a bog turtle community within Branchburg!
Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.