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You are here: Home / News & Webinars / NY NRCS Area Biologist Reflects on Nearly Two Decades of Conservation Success

NY NRCS Area Biologist Reflects on Nearly Two Decades of Conservation Success

Elizabeth Marks, NRCS Area Biologist, discusses the Bog Turtle Working Lands for Wildlife partnership in New York
NY NRCS Area Biologist Reflects on Nearly Two Decades of Conservation Success

Area Biologist Elizabeth Marks holding a bog turtle

Elizabeth Marks is an evangelist. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Area Biologist for Upstate New York is a passionate advocate for the rare, federally protected bog turtle, and she loves to sing the praises of her organization’s multi-year conservation effort to help stem its severe population decline. “I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished in New York,” she says. “We’ve worked very hard over the years to perfect our approach and we have evidence that when we properly restore these sites, the bog turtles thrive and their nesting success improves.”

The sites Ms. Marks refers to are the unique wetland habitats that the bog turtle calls home. According to her, “New York has some of the highest quality calcareous wetlands in the world.” Their mineral-rich and nutrient-poor soil supports a highly diverse ecosystem of rare and specialized plant species, which bog turtles rely on for cover and nesting habitat. Unfortunately, many decades of human impacts have caused these wetlands to degrade, depriving bog turtles of needed habitat and driving massive population losses. In particular, land conversion and agricultural activities have allowed a number of highly invasive plant species to move into these wetlands, suppressing the native plant diversity, altering the unique hydrology of the systems, and fostering conditions for more woody plant species to encroach and shade out the normally sunny and open habitat.

Since 2004, just a few years after the bog turtle was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, NRCS has been a major player in the effort to reverse this trend. By 2012, a national initiative was established under the NRCS's Working Lands for Wildlife partnership to focus more Farm Bill resources on bog turtle recovery. With guidance from experts in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and support from an array of dedicated local and regional partners, the NY NRCS office began adapting one of its most popular programs to specifically target conservation outcomes for bog turtles. “The purpose of the Wetland Reserve Easement Program (WRE; formerly known simply as the Wetland Reserve Program) is to allow landowners to voluntarily restore those farmed wetlands back to their natural functions and values,” explains Marks. Through the program, NRCS helps landowners cover the cost of specific conservation actions designed to restore the wetland and then purchases an easement over the wetland from the land owner to ensure that it is maintained for the future. 

In order to target the program to bog turtles, NRCS had to figure out exactly which conservation and management practices would be needed to restore ideal habitat conditions. Under the watchful eye of USFWS experts, NRCS carefully experimented with different approaches to removing invasive vegetation, such as reed canary grass and Phragmites, and clearing overstory plants to let in sunlight to benefit turtle nesting success. By the time Marks joined the program in 2011, NRCS had honed in on its most important tool; a practice called restoration grazing. “The idea is to make the cows a partner in restoring vegetative diversity to the wetland,” she says. “The livestock will preferentially eat the invasive species, allowing native vegetation to recover and thrive. It requires low animal density; just one animal unit per two acres. We’ve developed a specific protocol for this that we know works and we monitor it carefully.”

Cows aren’t the only partners. Marks points out that the program would be nowhere near as successful if several committed individuals and organizations were not supporting it. “Jason Tesauro, a private consultant and passionate reptile conservationist, has been with the program from the very beginning. So has the FWS, of course. And our own field staff in offices throughout the region have enthusiastically embraced it and are key to connecting us with farmers.”

And then there are the farmers themselves. Through WRE, they can use restoration grazing in combination with other conservation practices such as fencing and manual removal of woody species to restore their wetlands for bog turtles at low or no cost and receive the financial offset from the conservation easement, all while continuing to use the land for limited grazing. But Marks says that in her experience, most landowners in Upstate New York are willing to participate in the WRE program simply because they are happy to help the bog turtles. “The landowners we work with are usually genuinely interested in helping a rare and endangered species and are excited to be a part of the recovery of those species. They recognize that these are special habitats.”

Since the start of the bog turtle program, NY NRCS has conserved 493 acres of bog turtle habitat across 29 project sites, but Marks notes that there are still many more sites in need of permanent protection. Stabilization and recovery of bog turtle populations in New York is still a long way off. “But when I look at how far we’ve come,” she says, “I’m very optimistic.”