By Virginia CodyAugust 7, 2017
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District Wildlife Biologist and Project Manager Chris Akios joined forces with West Point's Natural Resource Manager Christopher Pray to conduct a survey of two turtle species throughout the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) installation, West Point, NY.
The survey was a first of its kind study to better understand the wood turtle and the spotted turtle in the area, and is important because both species have been nominated for inclusion on the federal list of protected species.
"We found a few at various life stages," Akios said, "so they're definitely there and are successfully breeding."
In fact, he explained, he and his colleagues captured, and released six different species of turtle while on their two-week foray into the wilds of the installation. Those six species comprise the full number of species suspected or known to exist on the property.
Akios' effort, part of a much larger U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program to monitor the health of various ecosystems throughout the United States, was made available to West Point through the USACE Buffalo District's Interagency and International Support (IIS) program.
"The IIS program is the gateway to helping natural resource managers of military installations keep up with all they have to do," said Akios. "They have a tough job balancing military training with natural resources needs. They are really good at what they do, but can sometimes find themselves short-staffed or needing specialized assistance. Having the ability to bring in additional support and expertise, through the IIS program, ensures they can be as successful as possible in accomplishing their mission."
The effort to observe the turtles began in 2010 when the Center for Biodiversity petitioned the federal government on a multitude of species they believed should be considered for inclusion on the endangered species list.
"In 2015," Pray said, "The Fish and Wildlife Service issued funding to consider including the spotted turtle and the wood turtle on the endangered species list."
And West Point immediately got involved.
Pray explained that West Point's interest in pursuing the survey is a matter of course. The Sikes Act, a 1960 law, requires the Department of Defense to manage natural resources on military installations.
"The Department of Defense protects ecosystems on 30 million acres of land," Akios added. "There are around 250 federally listed species that are known to occur on military lands, which is a disproportionately high number when compared to all US and US Territory lands."
Now that Akios and Pray have gained greater contextual information of the distribution of turtle species on the West Point installation, they're able to look to the future.
"I've got some ideas on how we can improve habitat," said Akios, explaining that those ideas will be included in his final report.
Pray agreed, adding that if either of the two turtles are included to the list of federally protected species, he'll be able to ensure training exercises on West Point don't negatively impact the turtles' habitat.
In any case, Akios is hoping to be able to go back to West Point to do some follow-up surveys that won't just confirm the presence of the turtles, but ones that will establish just how healthy that habitat is, allowing further insight to the populations of threatened turtles at West Point.