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Big hand for a tiny turtle

Bog turtles, North America's smallest turtles, are in line for a $153,000 federal grant to help save some favored habitat in Harford County.
Bog turtles, North America's smallest turtles, are in line for a $153,000 federal grant to help save some favored habitat in Harford County. (Maryland Zoo in Baltimore)

America's tiniest turtle is getting a helping hand from Uncle Sam.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it is giving the Maryland Department of Natural Resources $153,321 to protect the bog turtle, which at just three to four inches long can fit in the palm of an adult hand - when it can be found at all.

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The grant will go toward buying a home for the turtle, which is so rare it's considered threatened with extinction. The animals with mahogany-colored shells and yellowish-orange blotches on their heads favor freshwater bogs, fens, wet meadows, marshes, spring seeps, and wet cow pastures.

Jonathan A. McKnight, associate DNR director for habitat conservation, said the federal funds would go toward preserving a patch of bog turtle habitat in Harford County. To shield them from poachers - a major threat to their continued existence - he declined to be more specific about the site's location or its characteristics.

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The northeastern bog turtle population lives in scattered spots from Connecticut to Maryland, but this state is the "stronghold," according to McKnight. They're found in just four counties - Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil and Harford.

"It's an important portion of our bog turtle population," McKnight said of the Harford site. The state's known communities of turtles live in a series of wetlands that are interconnected, he explained, and state officials want to keep them in a natural state in order to protect them.

While farming and development have chipped away over the years at the turtles' habitat, their biggest threat these days is from illegal collectors, McKnight said. With bog turtles fetching thousands of dollars each on the black market, wildlife officials strive to safeguard their remaining locations.

The funds for Maryland turltes were just a small part of nearly $1.5 million in all that the federal agency handed out to four states, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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