GRASONVILLE — GRASONVILLE - For the last decade, the diamondback terrapin - symbol of the University of Maryland and a species fighting for its niche in the ecosystem - has had Marguerite Whilden as its full-time advocate in state government.
Now she is gone from the state payroll, and the future of the modest terrapin conservation program she ran is up in the air.
Whilden, known widely as "the Turtle Lady," was one of about 80 state employees laid off last month as part of the Ehrlich administration's plan to cut $208 million from this year's budget to deal with Maryland's revenue shortfall.
Supporters of terrapin conservation called Whilden's termination a serious loss for the state, but a Department of Natural Resources official dismissed her as merely a "cheerleader" for the species.
"She's been the guru of the terrapins for a number of years," said Del. Virginia P. Clagett, an Arundel County Democrat who recently served on a terrapin task force.
"There is no terrapin program without Mrs. Whilden," said William Moulden, who was chairman of the 1999 Maryland Diamondback Terrapin Task Force. "When she walks out the door, any interest in saving the official state reptile goes with her."
The spending cuts and layoffs were approved by the Board of Public Works late last month, and Whilden was one of eight DNR employees to be terminated.
News of Whilden's layoff from her nonpolitical, $47,319-a-year job filtered across Annapolis last week. When approached for an interview, Whilden reluctantly agreed, saying she was concerned about the future of the conservation program for the official state reptile.
Whilden, 50, was still working with turtles last week - but not on the state payroll. She and intern Jeff Popp were at the privately owned Horsehead Wetlands Center in Queen Anne's County, caring for turtles.
Whilden, a 30-year department employee, said "there's no bitterness" over her layoff. She said she knows DNR officials had to make a lot of tough decisions, but wonders why they decided to cut a program that has been bringing in money from private and federal sources to pay for its conservation efforts.
"This is not about me. It's about a program the public really supported and didn't have a downside," she said. "I'm just trying to figure out what's not to like."
Whilden spoke while showing a visitor around a small turtle conservation sanctuary on the grounds of the Horsehead center, which is owned by the private Wildfowl Trust. Along a small beach on Cabin Creek, dozens of small flags fluttered in the breeze - each marking the site of a present or past terrapin egg deposit.
Nearby stands a small garage rented by the state with tanks housing more than a dozen adult terrapins and hatchlings. On a shelf are trays of turtle eggs being incubated. Whilden said she doesn't know what will happen to the breeding efforts when the state stops its $300 monthly rent payments.
The prospects for Whilden's terrapin project looked much brighter in June 2002, when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening visited the site to publicize the state's terrapin conservation efforts - some of them funded by the University of Maryland's "Fear the Turtle" product licensing program.
But even before Glendening left office, the department was already cutting back the educational outreach component of Whilden's job - instructing her to end a popular program under which she brought terrapins into the schools.
Mike Slattery, assistant DNR secretary for resource management, said the department was not eliminating its turtle conservation efforts - just its education and outreach component.
"We understand it was a popular program. It's just not one that was mission-critical," he said. "That does not mean that DNR does not care about terrapin conservation."
Slattery said the department will no longer have a central coordinator of terrapin conservation efforts. He explained that DNR is responsible for hundreds of vertebrate species in the state, none of which has its own advocate on the department payroll.
Slattery called Whilden's role that of a "cheerleader" for terrapin conservation. "We can't afford the luxury of a cheerleader for the program," he said.
Moulden said the "cheerleader" description reflected the hostility of the DNR brass toward Whilden's proactive approach to habitat conservation.
"That's just their spiteful characterization of the service she was performing for this state," he said, adding that her approach to conservation put her at odds with the "crisis management" orientation of top department bureaucrats.
"I know she's been a thorn in the side of the department since she's been there because she's challenged the bosses to a higher standard," Moulden said.
Whilden said Slattery's characterization of her duties "minimizes the value of the program and it's a very cheap shot."
She said her duties included research, advising waterfront property owners on preserving terrapin breeding grounds, writing grant proposals and even doing the hands-on work of tagging turtles.
Phyllis Koenings, executive director of the Assateague Coast Trust, said Whilden had given the group important guidance on how to protect terrapins in the Eastern Shore's coastal bays.
"She's always been a resource for us when we've had questions about terrapins," Koenings said.
Whilden, a lifelong Republican, said she visited Ehrlich in his Washington office when he was a congressman and came away with the impression that he was a big supporter of terrapin preservation.
"I know he is. He just didn't get the full picture. I love that guy. I have a lot of hope for him," she said.
At public events, Ehrlich has supported terrapin conservation. In June, he joined former state Sen. Bernie Fowler at an environmental event in Southern Maryland where they released a terrapin into the wild. (According to Whilden, the reptile was raised from the egg stage in the Horsehead facility.)
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the governor is standing behind the department's layoff recommendations.
"There are a number of highly qualified scientists at DNR who will have oversight over the species," he said.
Regardless of what happens with the DNR program, Whilden said she hopes to remain active in turtle protection - whether as a volunteer or on another organization's payroll. She said people can learn a lot from the colorful reptiles.
"The turtle has taught us to be tolerant and persistent," she said.