By Scott Prater
Thanks to the work of the Natural Resource Section at New Boston Air Force Station, the scientific community is about to gain a bevy of knowledge about an endangered species that calls the base home.
Following eight years of research on Blanding’s turtles and their habitat, Stephen Najjar, NBAFS natural resource planner, and his staff plan to submit a detailed study on the topic to national scientific journals later this year.
The state of New Hampshire lists the Blanding’s turtle as endangered and threatened, which means the species’ prospects for survival in New Hampshire are in danger because of a loss or change in habitat, over-exploitation, predation, competition, disease, disturbance or contamination.
According to information released by the state, assistance is needed to ensure their continued existence as a viable component of the state’s wildlife community.
Najjar said his team has actually been studying the turtle for more than 10 years.
As part of their research, the staff trapped a number of turtles, measured their size and weight, tested their DNA and affixed radio frequency transmitters to their shells [carapaces] among other measures, in an effort to study their movements and habits.
“We discovered a tremendous amount of interesting information about them,” Najjar said. “One habit we discovered was that females tended to cross roadways more often than males, so they’re more predisposed to being killed by traffic.”
The researchers also discovered that the species follows a seasonal pattern of movement.
“Blanding’s turtles are wetland natives,” Najjar said. “They move from one water source to the next as the seasons change. They start out in beaver ponds, but they’ll gravitate toward seasonal or vernal pools, which are pools that form in the spring and dry up in the summer. There aren’t any fish in these pools because the water dries up, but wood frogs breed there and they create a food source for the turtles. They love to eat frog eggs and tadpoles.”
During nesting season, the turtles can travel upwards of a half a mile to lay their eggs, usually in early June. The females travel on land to ideal nesting spots. They prefer gravel types of material so nests can often be found on road shoulders. From there, they tend to use intermittent streams to travel back to the vernal pools, and later, the beaver ponds again.
At roughly 10-inches in length the Blanding’s are considered medium sized. They’re distinguishable by their yellowish chins and throats, a domed shell and oblong shape. Hatchlings are about the size of a half dollar and they, like adult females, tend to get run over when crossing roads, simply because they’re not easy to spot.
During the study, the natural resource office created an awareness campaign centered on the Blanding’s turtle.
“We spoke at commanders calls and put the word out for drivers to keep an eye out,” Najjar said. “I think people on base are much more aware now. They are letting us know when they see them, so it seems like we’ve been successful in our efforts.”
Perhaps more importantly, Najjar and his staff have been able to advise engineers, project managers and base leadership prior to construction of new buildings or missions.
“When there has been a potential to impact turtle habitats, we’ve managed to come up with viable alternatives to lessen or eliminate that impact,” Najjar said. “Another positive that came out of the project stemmed from what we learned. We can now demonstrate to the New Hampshire Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that we understand the habitat the turtles are using. We’ve also altered our behavior.”
Years ago, NBAFS employed an engineer who liked to use vertical curbing during road construction projects. Thanks to this study, staff now advise today’s engineers to use slanted or curved curbing.
“For a Blanding’s turtle, a vertical curb is like a 10-foot wall,” Najjar said. “They can’t get up and around them, so they have to keep going until they find a break, which exposes them to prolonged road danger.”
Though the study has come to an end, protection efforts remain strong.
“What we’re doing is active management,” Najjar said. “We’re required to do that, much like our other management missions such as forestry, timber harvesting and prescribed burns.”
New Hampshire Tracking Station at NBAFS is the largest remote tracking station in the Air Force Satellite Control Network.
“Environmental stewardship is important to the 23rd Space Operations Squadron,” said Lt. Col. David Hanson, 23 SOPS commander. “Team 23 SOPS makes great efforts to protect species indigenous to New Boston Air Force Station that are on the state’s endangered list, including the Eastern small-footed bat, the Eastern hognose snake and the Blanding’s turtle. Through our natural resources section, we pay deliberate attention to the type of road construction techniques and storm drain covers used and conduct base awareness campaigns, all to adequately protect their habitats. The base we call home takes a lot of work to ensure it is rightly taken care of…but it’s absolutely worth it.”