Bog turtles weigh 1 pound, grow no longer than a pencil and spend much of their lives hidden in the mud feeding on slugs, seeds and young rodents.
But in the battle between development and nature, the relatively unknown reptiles are heavyweights.
Since it was declared a threatened species in 1997, the bog turtle has held up construction of bypasses, highways, a dam and retail complexes on the East Coast.
In Maryland, 18 turtles found in wetlands near Hampstead in Carroll County will delay a proposed $35 million bypass that has been in the works since the 1960s.
Some Carroll politicians and residents question whether the turtles should hold up a road that would benefit 16,000 drivers each day.
"You can't stop progress for a turtle. It takes 30 to 40 minutes to get through town," said Brenda Thorn, owner of Queen's Collectibles, an antiques and wooden furniture shop on Main Street in Hampstead. "I can't see what function they have in our society. We don't eat them."
That could change. Residents have grumbled that one solution to the bog turtle problem might be an order of soup. Others have quietly hoped that someone will sell the rare turtles on the black market, where they have fetched up to $2,000 apiece.
"It's ridiculous. I think people need to speak up and say enough is enough," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, a former mayor of Hampstead. "I think environmentalists are putting human beings and safety behind the bog turtles."
For many years, the reverse was true. Rapid development, the draining of wetlands and pesticides have steadily destroyed the turtles' muddy habitat. Surveys indicate that their numbers have declined about 40 percent since the early 1980s.
It is estimated that fewer than 10,000 of the turtles remain in the 12 states from Massachusetts to Georgia. Maryland is home to a third of them. The turtle, which has a brown or black shell and bright orange markings on its head, can be found in Carroll, Cecil, Baltimore and Harford counties.
If accommodations are not made for the turtle in Carroll County, one of the world's richest bog turtle habitats could be destroyed, researchers say.
Hampstead emerged in the late 18th century as a convenient stop for oxen and mules pulling loads from Baltimore to Pennsylvania.
Early residents dubbed the center of town "the great swamp" because of the marsh that occupied most of the land. They navigated through town on planks above the mud, which was an ideal habitat for bog turtles.
Hampstead's population has grown to 4,200, but it is still mainly a place on the way to someplace else. Route 30, Hampstead's Main Street, is a major artery for commuters traveling from northern Carroll County and Pennsylvania to the Baltimore region.
Talk of a bypass began in the 1960s, but disagreements over proposed alignments, land acquisition and a lack of money have prevented the project from moving off the drawing boards.
The bypass route has been realigned once for the turtle, after the first one was found on its north end by a state biologist in 1994.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the turtle a threatened species, the State Highway Administration asked James Howard, a Frostburg State University biologist, to survey Hampstead's turtle population. Howard and some of his students spent six weeks searching for the small, often elusive turtles.
"We spent a lot of time on our hands and knees with our arms and shoulders buried in muck," he said.
Howard's team found 17 turtles, and each one was outfitted with a radio transmitter. Howard continues to monitor the turtles' movements to gain a better understanding of the extent of their habitat. Such information will be crucial for the turtles' survival, Howard said.
Biologists compare bog turtle habitats to beads on a necklace, the stream beds and wetlands being the strand that connects them. Roads, bypasses and other development projects break that strand, often isolating turtle populations, marooning the turtles. Inbreeding eventually weakens the turtles, and the population dies off.
That could be the fate of Hampstead's turtles, including one group near a proposed industrial park that is thought to have about 100 turtles, Howard said.
"You folks are lucky. You have one of the healthiest populations of bog turtles in the world," Howard told members of Hampstead's Town Council during a presentation Tuesday.
Howard envisions a bypass and industrial park that would make accommodations for the protected species, including bridge spans over wetlands disturbed by the bypass.
Howard and state highway officials have also suggested establishing a bog turtle preserve near Hampstead.
"The bog turtle can live in an urban environment as long as its habitat is protected. The road can be an enhancement to the habitat by securing areas critical to the bog turtle," said Bill Branch, an environmental analyst for the State Highway Administration.
Branch said it would not be the first time his agency had tried to accommodate roads and nature. The SHA has made design changes to protect fox squirrels, rare plants and other threatened organisms.
In 1995, the agency spent about $50,000 to investigate mole salamanders that were being squashed by cars on a state road in Montgomery County.
The SHA thought a new 1,000-foot curb was trapping the amphibians as they tried to cross the road to reproduce in a nearby pond. The study concluded that the curb had no impact on the salamanders.
"You might say who cares if we save a few salamanders," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, SHA spokeswoman. "If we can do something to reduce the impact on nature, we do. We'll do the same thing here."
Meeting the needs of wildlife takes time and money. Branch said a comprehensive study of Hampstead's turtle populations should be complete by fall. Making design changes and getting permits for the project would take one more year at most, he said. Branch said he does not know how much the changes could add to the estimated $35 million cost of the bypass.
The turtles' defenders point out that no funding has been allocated for the bypass. Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin said the state will be reluctant to provide such funds until the bog turtle issue is settled.
"I hope it's not held up too long for a turtle," he said.
Outgoing Hampstead Town Manager Neil Ridgely is optimistic that a balance can be struck between the turtles and humans. Still, he has watched many citizens turn against them.
"I've heard about people wanting to make stew and removing the animals," he said. "The fact of the matter is it's a federal issue and needs to be dealt with seriously."
Gouge said the needs of county residents have been pushed aside.
"Do the biologists live in Hampstead or Manchester?" she said. "I'm sure it's immaterial to them. They are only interested in funding whatever study that promotes themselves."
After hearing that bog turtles have sold for as much as $2,000 on the black market, Gouge joked that at such a high price someone might take them away.
"Then they could sell them or make their soup or whatever. And we can get our highway," she said.
Other county residents, including George Horvath of Sykesville, who is opposed to widening Route 97 in the southern part of the county, marvel at the power of a turtle most people have never seen.
"I am going to Hampstead to get one of those bog turtles," he said. "They seem to be the only things that might stop development down here."
Pub Date: 1/14/99