A 4.5-acre addition to the Nature Conservancy’s Orchard Bog Preserve in Shady Valley will give a small species of turtle a better chance of survival.
Unique to wetland areas, bog turtles are tiny, picky creatures with orange “ear spots” that like saturated soils and wet, open meadow areas. The now-150-acre preserve was established to reverse the devastating effects dryland farming has had on the turtles’ habitat and to protect the current population, which is endangered in Tennessee.
The newest addition was made possible by Shady Valley resident Edith Jenkins who sold the land to the Nature Conservancy in May. Her brother, George Jenkins Jr., who passed away in 2000, was known for moving turtles off the road and out of harm’s way. A group of interns working with the Nature Conservancy recently installed a sign designating the new land as the George Jenkins Jr. Memorial Wetland Gardens.
“I know my brother would be proud of what I did,” Jenkins said. “I knew the turtles needed to be protected and I knew I couldn’t do it alone.”
Edith felt even better about her decision to sell the land once she had a chance to go into the wetlands to look for bog turtles with Lynn Eastin and Bern Tryon, who died in May. Both of them have spent years studying and tracking the movements of the turtles within the Orchard Bog Preserve, and Eastin, the lead field technician, got plenty of her preservation passion from Tryon.
“In the spring we find them, put transmitters on them and Bern and I would work together,” she said. “We would get about 50 individual locations that would be put on the map of where the turtle was and the date it was there.”
Considering large adult male turtles reach a mere 4.5 inches in length, finding between 12 and 20 turtles each year is a challenge that usually involves searching in mud, where the bog turtles like to hide. One of the largest problems facing the species is the lack of reproduction. Because newly hatched turtles are about the size of a quarter, they are susceptible to predators. Eastin says bog turtles’ nesting and hibernating habitat must be managed in order for her to begin spotting new turtles.
“They’re used to always moving around and now they’re limited on one place on the preserves where all of them have been hibernating,” she said.
Keeping the wetlands free of development and farming will help the turtles’ chances, but Eastin also plans to help make their environment resemble more of an early successional habitat by preventing the area from becoming overgrown and by encouraging more moss and hummocks.
Other than setting aside land to increase the population of bog turtles, the preserve is also beneficial to the cranberry bogs and an array of other animals like migratory birds and salamanders.
“Wetlands are big giant filters,” said Gabby Call, program manager at the Nature Conservancy. “The water that’s moving through is actually being cleaned as it goes down the valley into Beaver Dam Creek.”
“Any wetlands is a good thing,” Eastin said. “It would be wonderful to have more, but what we’ve got is good. We’ll have to do specific work to be able to manage it.”
Even though Eastin is observing more bog turtle deaths than new life, her positive outlook on the preservation project keeps her working in the wetlands upward of seven days a week.
“I feel very strongly that they were created to be here, and just because we don’t know their purpose of being here it’s our jobs to be stewards and take care of them,” she said. “I feel like nature has a right to be nature. It doesn’t have to prove its worth.”
The Orchard Bog Preserve is located 1.3 miles south of Highway 421 in Shady Valley. The area is open to the public and has a parking area, plus walking trails, and is also a great place for bird watchers.