Pete Jones looked down at the muddy puddle.
“That’s my first bog turtle,” the dairy farmer said, watching as North America’s smallest turtle disappeared into a cow’s hoofprint.
He looked over at the biologists with a grin and a wink: this refuted his suspicion that the wetland restoration on his eastern New York dairy farm had benefited ghost turtles.
Stumbling across this turtle — no bigger than the palm of your hand — in any cow pasture is indeed rare. But it’s no apparition.
Around the time that bog turtles were federally protected in 1997, they were increasingly discovered in grazed, marshy meadows on farms across the species’ range. Researchers dug in, figuratively as well as literally. Their findings, gleaned from two decades of research: the 4-inch turtle loves our largest livestock.
Why the attraction? When the peaceful chompers graze, stomp and poop in the spring-fed meadows, they transform pastures into rich nesting habitat for their tiny friends.
That affinity brought biologist Jason Tesauro to Jones’ farm in 2009.
Jones, 58, was dealing with densely growing invasive plants. They squeezed his fields, stealing the grass before it made its way to the cows’ stomachs. Jones resorted to buying feed to keep his herd fed, but he knew that couldn’t last.
“Pasture is cheaper to feed the cows,” Jones said.
A timely discovery changed all that. Tesauro, a contractor for USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), visited Jones’ meadows. What he saw stopped the biologist in his tracks.
“There, in a small hummock on the lower part of his property, were the remnants of a hatched bog turtle nest. I was like, bam! Here we go!” said Tesauro. The nest qualified Jones for enrollment in the NRCS Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program.
Through the program, and with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Jones would regain his pastures and become steward of a large, bona fide bog turtle population. An estimated 40 thrive on his lands.
Oh, and by putting conservation easements on 60 acres of his property, he’d get some extra cash back in his pocket.
Dairy farming, “a way of life”
Jones rotates his cows among the pastures. On a day in late May, the cows milled around the long tie-stall barn, built in 1982 by his dad, now 88. Young black-and-white Holsteins grazed on one side. Newborns and calves stood around on the other side, chickens pecking the ground between them. Three silos stretched to the clear sky.
Jones has been in the dairy business since he was 11, when his dad ran both a hardware store and a dairy farm. He left for Cornell University to study botany but wound up back with the cows.
“I like the cows, and I take care of them,” he said, perhaps unnecessarily. “They say that dairy farming is a business, but it really is a way of life. You do it because you like to do it.”
Jones and his one employee watch over 140 cows, about half of which are milking age. They send the milk off in a tractor-trailer from Marcus Dairy. He still puts corn on about 100 acres, hays 200 acres, and has over 100 acres in pasture.
He’s one of the few small dairy operations left in Dutchess County, about two hours north of New York City. The decline isn’t unique to the Hudson Valley. According to the USDA, the number of dairies nationwide dropped from about 3.5 million in 1950 to 58,000 in 2012 — roughly an 84 percent decline. Research also shows that large farms account for an increasing share of milk production; small farms, with lower yields, carry twice the production costs of big operations.
The realities, for a small dairy producer like Jones, are clear: It costs more to make less milk than larger competitors.
He unabashedly admits that the financial perks of the easements made them attractive. They’ve helped him keep the farm going while putting his kids through school.
“The money was a big incentive,” he said. “The improvement of the land was so important, too … Not only do I get to feed on it, but I like looking at it.”
A love for the ages
The 20-acre site, restored in 2012, is down the road at one of the conservation easements.
Jones’ meadow is hemmed in by forest on one side and a hill with shrubs on the other. Cattails poke up from the soggy ground and red-winged blackbirds bounce among them.
On a recent visit, the biologists—Tesauro and the Service’s Noelle Rayman-Metcalf looked on. They admired the grassy tufts recently trimmed by cows and listened as yellow warblers and gray catbirds sang at the field’s edges. They murmured about things unique to a biologist’s mind: calcareous fens and alkaline-loving vegetation.
They stood in no ordinary wet meadow. This is a limestone fen, a wetland underlain by limestone, fed by calcium-rich seeps and springs, and home to distinct grasses and sedges.
The fen’s biggest fans may be the bog turtles. They spend most of their time buried in the watery puddles, rising to bask in the late-morning sun. They climb on the hummocks—the small mounds that rise from the marsh—to build nests and lay anywhere from three to six 1-inch eggs.
They benefit from a low density of cattle, mostly heifers, that have grazed on the site for about six years—maintaining it as a perfect turtle maternity ward. Prior to that, the wetlands were cleared and fenced to make room for the cows, Tesauro said. Now, Jones is paid per grazed acre. When the turtles nest, he pulls the cows out.
Jones’ pleasure with the arrangement is two-fold, according to Tesauro.
“One, he can reclaim pasture for his cattle,” the biologist said. “Two, it creates a more aesthetically pleasing environment in that it’s open rather than overgrown with nonnative plants.”
It’s paying off for the turtles, too. Tesauro studied the site for five years and found that the nesting turtles virtually trail the cows, following in their flooded hoofprints. When given the choice, nesting turtles selected the cattle-disturbed areas.
“The take-home is that cattle grazing improved and expanded nesting habitat,” he said.
Additionally, cages placed over nests protected eggs and hatchlings from predators. The abundance of turtles 4-5 years old suggests many have persisted since.
There are 11 other active grazing projects under NRCS in the state, but Jones’ stands out. He has more bog turtle habitat enrolled under NRCS wetland management than any other landowner in New York, and “possibly in the country,” Tesauro said.
The technique has been used in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, too. Some landowners also rely on cows, but others have used goats. In Delaware and New Jersey, bog turtles have made homes in the ponderous path of visiting water buffalo.
“Why would there be such an odd coincidental kind of relationship?” Tesauro asked. “Some have theorized that cattle are ecological replacements for large, wild herbivores that once grazed wetlands in eastern North America, like eastern wood bison and elk. But that may be just a romanticized notion.
“What we do know is that throughout their evolutionary history, bog turtles co-existed with an abundance of large herbivores and are no strangers to having these big grazers in their habitat,” he said.
With the bulk of bog turtle habitat in private ownership, landowners like Jones play a critical role in habitat restoration, said Rayman-Metcalf, the Service biologist.
“Private lands are so important,” she said. “We have to work with private landowners to gain trust and to let them know how important they are to achieve recovery.”
Now, the team is preparing for their next habitat project at the other conservation easement on Jones’ property.
Bring it on, Jones said.
“It’s a win-win situation, this bog turtle stuff,” he said. “I’m grateful for it, as the dairy business is a tough business.”
Note: The landowner’s name has been changed to protect the species.
Meagan Racey is a public affairs specialist with the Northeast Region in Hadley, Massachusetts.
In partnership with USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature’s Good Neighbor through our Endangered Species Program and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a voluntary initiative that works with private landowners to improve fish and wildlife habitat on their land. A phone call or email is all it takes to learn more with one of our 250 private lands biologists. If you are interested in improving habitat for fish and wildlife on your land, please find your local Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist. Landowners can also partake in the Working Lands for Wildlife program.