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Eastern Box Turtle Slows Pace Of Development In Mashpee

Posted in: Mashpee News, Top Stories
Nov 28, 2008 - 12:32:58 PM
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Eastern Box Turtle: Courtesy of USGS/National Biological Information Infrastructure, photographs by John J. Mosesso.
MASHPEE- One day this July Theresa A. McDonald found a turtle on the doorstep of her home on Cranberry Ridge Road. Not an uncommon experience, but Ms. McDonald took a lot of pictures of the little critter, as she and her children often do of the animals, bugs, and other wildlife they come across.
She did not think much of it, but mentioned it to someone at work, who suggested it might be an Eastern box turtle, a state-listed endangered species that seems to be cropping up all over Mashpee and other parts of Cape Cod.
Ms. McDonald did a little Internet research and found photographs of Eastern box turtles on the Internet that looked exactly like the turtle she had seen earlier that day.
What seemed common soon took on great weight, as she had recently learned about a new condominium development that was proposed by Willowbend for the lots behind her back yard. The presence of a “species of special concern” on property can set into play drastic development restrictions.
She reported her finding to the state, submitting the photographs she had taken and following the guidelines on the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species website.
Two months later, she found another one, which she reported as well, in front of the home of someone from Willowbend management, just down the street from the soccer field along Willowbend Drive that is proposed to be replaced with the condominiums.
“How about the irony of that?” she said in an interview last week. “My first thought, once I put it together, was maybe this could help stop or delay them putting this huge condo complex in behind us,” she said.
A neighbor found one eight days later in the road, crushed by an automobile.
A representative of Willowbend said last week that the developers would soon be meeting with state officials to assess the issue and he could not comment further. David M. Wood, general manager, said he could not yet say whether the turtles would present a significant obstacle to the plans to build 48 condominium units on a newly paved Simons Road.
Ms. McDonald’s novice field biology, the discovery of the dead turtle, and the potential impacts on Willowbend illustrate a growing awareness in town, about development and the turtles. Behind the scenes is another factor: the natural heritage program.
The state released a new regulatory map in September, showing a significantly enlarged area in town deemed “priority” and “estimated” habitat, areas that now cover at least half the total land area. Willowbend’s proposed condominium project is half in, half out of the mapped habitat. Large sections of Mashpee Commons’ remaining undeveloped property around the rotary are covered, as is much of the area around the rotary except the Mashpee Commons mall area, the elementary schools, and the rotary itself. The proposed assisted living site across Old Barnstable Road from Southport is within the potential and mapped habitat.
The list goes on, covering both developed and undeveloped areas, most of the significant new developments proposed in town, and large swaths across the central and northern sections of Mashpee.
But the expansive habitat, protected because turtles either have been found or could be there, has led to a common refrain among some residents, “If they keep turning up around town, how can they be endangered?”
Sarah Haggerty, natural heritage program information manager for the state protected species program, said that is a question heard often: “I know it is hard for people living in those areas, who say, ‘Gosh, I’ve seen one myself. How rare can they be?’ But the thing is, they are only found in those areas, southeastern Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley.”
The Eastern box turtles like what Mashpee has to offer, according to interviews with biologists and naturalists. The sandy soil is good for nesting and the relatively temperate climate of the Cape is a good base. They thrive in the pitch pine and scrub oak forests common to Mashpee. They are omnivorous, eating roots and leaves as well as slugs and worms. They like successional forest areas, where smaller, scrubbier trees that have not yet matured are filling in previously open fields, as is found in many places in Mashpee.
Roads have sliced up the turtles’ range, and according to interviews with biologists and state officials, now present one of the main threats to the species. It takes just one poorly timed road crossing to quickly end a turtle’s life, as proven by the third observation near Cranberry Ridge this fall.
Roads and other development have also divided up the range into pockets where the turtles are faring well, mostly on undeveloped land.
“They are not uncommon in the places where they are,” is how Ms. Haggerty put it.
Ms. Haggerty said there does seem to be an uptick in documented cases in Mashpee and on the Upper Cape, but she could not say whether the increase means the turtle is recovering. “It may mean we just have more records,” she said.
She said she could not comment on individual documentations, like Ms. McDonald’s.
But even as the protected areas in town grow, the state is having a hard time keeping up with its documentation, and with fewer biologists in the field, it is relying more on observations from both laymen and wildlife organizations, according to Dennis S. Murley, a naturalist at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
“There are large areas where everyone knows some of these species occur, but there is no one on the ground to document them,” Mr. Murley said. “I don’t know if they will admit it, but I think funding has been more and more of a problem over the years.”
“It has become a box on the state income tax just to keep them funded,” he said.
Ms. Haggerty said the staff has not been cut, to her knowledge. There was never a golden era when there were biologists roaming around the state to document protected species, she said. But that staff is being pulled in more different directions recently, and there seems to be more public awareness about the vulnerable species, so more records are being contributed by the public, she said.
In addition to using the records filed by state biologists out in the field, she said the state is stringent in which public observations it accepts, checking each submittal against previously documented records and aerial photography to make sure the habitat is of the right type. If an observation is filed in an area where a species has not been seen in a long time, the agency is particularly wary of including it on the maps, she said.
“There may be great habitat nearby, so we may say, ‘I bet they are there, too,’ but we can’t map that habitat unless we have a record,” Ms. Haggerty said.
She said there is some guesswork in the mapping, in predicting a turtle’s ranges based on where the observation was recorded and where it is likely to use as habitat.
“So there are definitely a lot of areas in which no one has seen a box turtle within that square foot. But otherwise our maps would just be a bunch of dots,” she said.
Thomas W. French, an assistant director in the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife who oversees the endangered species program, said in a previous interview that he is aware that opponents to development could easily capture a box turtle, transport it to the proposed site, document it there, and then use that to fight the project. But it has never been proven to happen in Massachusetts with any species, and most of the time it is easy to tell what would be suitable habitat for species such as the box turtle even based on aerial photographs or topographical maps, he said.
As the state works through the documentation issues, though, the turtles are impacting development throughout town.
If the turtles are found on an undeveloped property, up to 70 percent of it can be required to be set aside as open space, said Town Planner F. Thomas Fudala. The developers can purchase off site property as mitigation, but it must be in mapped habitat as well, and only 30 percent of the set aside acreage counts toward the mitigation requirement because the state assumes that 70 percent of it will be protected anyway.
The assisted living developers, for example, faced heavy restrictions, but in an interview before the Town Meeting vote last month that likely damaged the prospects of the project moving forward, a partner of the developers said they were supportive of the conservation measure and saw it not as a handicap against them. “It is still painful, but everyone has to deal with the same regulations,” said David G. Adams, the South Shore-based development partner.
For Mashpee Commons, Vice President Douglas S. Storrs emphasized in a recent interview that the turtle “may be” found on the property. “Look, I am not saying that there are not turtles on the property, but let’s base it on science, not guesswork,” he said.
Mr. Storrs criticized the review process, in which the state identifies land where the protected species may be, and developers whose land falls within that territory have to prove the species are not there.
“I am a strong supporter of environmental conservation and environmental regulation, but at times it borders on the absurd,” Mr. Storrs said.
Mr. Murley, the Wellfleet Bay naturalist, strongly defended the need to help the turtles recover and not prevent but cater development to protect them. He cited a recent compromise at a new church in Eastham that was proposed in “prime box turtle habitat.” Some land was set aside in a conservation restriction. “The church may not be completely happy,” he said. They are putting the image of a box turtle on their weathervane, he said.
One local wildlife expert has filed a letter with the Mashpee Planning Board, which is working with Mr. Storrs on the basis for a possible development agreement for the remainder of Mashpee Commons properties around the rotary, claiming to have seen a box turtle on the Trout Pond parcel to the southeast of the rotary.
The Trout Pond area appears to be good habitat for box turtles, according to a natural resources specialist with the Cape Cod Commission.
On the other hand, the Job’s and Whitings neighborhoods, for which Mashpee Commons received a 40B development permit last year, used to be considered potential habitats but are no longer.
At a meeting late this summer on the project, members of the Mashpee Planning Board, staff from the Cape Cod Commission staff, and Mr. Storrs all got a laugh out of the fact that the center of the rotary was considered mapped habitat. About a month later, when the new map was released, the turtles had disappeared from the rotary. They still may be around Trout Pond, though, or many other places in town, even some front walkways.