Bel Air Turtle Derby

A wildlife group is asking leaders of Bel Air's annual Independence Day celebration to cancel the Turtle Derby, long a staple of the July 4 activities. While acknowledging the concerns, organizers say this year's race will go as planned. (Bel Air Independence Day Committee / July 1, 2013)

Bel Air's annual July 4 turtle derby is known for being slow, but now a conservation group wants to bring it to a complete halt.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter Friday to event sponsor Kiwanis Club asking the Bel Air group to call off the derby, warning of the risk of spreading "deadly diseases" to both wild turtles and children.

While the derby has been going on for years, the center raised the issue now – and less than a week before the event – because of a rise in ranaviruses among amphibians in Maryland, Collette Adkins Giese, the center's biologist and attorney, explained in a phone interview Friday.

The virus has been detected since last year in Harford County and "we are very much concerned that it can spread," she said, noting it has been known to "just wipe out populations."

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"Then last summer, a sick box turtle was found in Harford County and brought to the Chadwell Animal Hospital in Abingdon, and tests sent to the national wildlife lab in Wisconsin confirmed ranavirus," she added.

The Turtle Derby and Frog Jumping Contests are longtime staples of Bel Air's annual day-long Independence Day celebration, set for July 4, which also features a parade and fireworks and is one of the most heavily attended events of its kind in Maryland.

Going ahead

Organizers have no plans to call off the derby, at least not this year.

Don Stewart, president and chairman of the Bel Air Independence Day Committee, Inc., the nonprofit community group that runs the Bel Air celebration, said Monday he did not necessarily disagree with the center's position, but the volunteer organizers did not have enough time to consider stopping the event.

"We do our best to keep as safe as possible," he said. "It's a long tradition. It predates us. It's not anything new and our understanding of animals has increased over the years."

"They definitely have a point. We are not disputing anything they have to say," he said. "We are just doing the best we can with what little resources we have."

"Our group wasn't ready to make that move that quickly," Stewart added about the possibility of calling off the race, explaining that if the derby was called off, a new event would have to fill that time slot.

Stewart also said organizers talked with the center about half a year ago, and he doesn't know why they sent out a letter now.

"They are really good people, with a specific cause. They are doing what they think is necessary to further their cause and interest and I respect that," Stewart said. "They know we are moving forward with [the celebration] and I don't think they are happy with that."

He said he is very concerned about preserving the tradition and reputation of the July 4 event, calling it "very large, very old, very traditional."

"It's not feasible to just snap my fingers and make a change," Steward said. "We told them right after this event, we would have another meeting as a group and we would re-address the issue."

Other races changed

Adkins Giese noted the Maryland Department of Natural Resources put out a statement last year urging participants to stop collecting wild turtles for the race because of the potential health risk to both the turtles and participants.

The center's letter says many other towns have replaced turtle races with creative substitutes and the Johns Hopkins Turtle Race in Baltimore now uses animals brought in from U.S. turtle farms, where the turtles are returned afterward.

The virus was first detected in Montgomery County in 2011, according to a DNR newsletter. The National Wildlife Health Center also says all confirmed cases of ranaviral infection in wild eastern box turtles are from Maryland.