Reintroduction and Management Plan for Sweetwater Creek Park
INTRODUCTION: Originally home to the Cherokees, Georgia’s Sweetwater Creek State Park is one of Georgia’s 63 state parks. In 1819, the United States government forced the removal of Cherokee Indians from the site because of the continual need for more land, as more European immigrants flooded into the country. In 1827, Georgia divided the lands through lottery and in 1838, known as the Trail of Tears, the government forced the Cherokees to leave Georgia and move to the west. After the removal of the Indians, Charles J. McDonald bought a large plot of the land in 1846 for the construction of a cotton mill. However, in 1864, when General William T. Sherman invaded Georgia, the Confederate troops had already crossed the Chattahoochee River, which allowed Sherman to burn the mill down. In 1972, Sweetwater became an official park and to this day, the park consists of 2,549 acres and is approximately found 15 miles from downtown Atlanta. The park’s website highlights its many wooded walking trails, outdoor recreational opportunities, and Civil War history.
Although the state park seems like a perfect haven of biological diversity, the park has actually had a rough start. The division of the land for industrial use spurred the ongoing problems of the population of Eastern Box turtles. As human development disturbed their habitats, the mortality rate of turtles increased, which led to the near disappearance of the species. However, the decline in the population of box turtles increased even more when Sherman burned the mill down. The fire completely destroyed the species's habitat and the reintroduction of the Eastern Box turtle was desperately needed because the food web would be incomplete and the park would have lost a part of its native animals. However, now, because of the parks’ close proximity to downtown Atlanta, highways, runoff pollution, and human intervention are the leading factors to why it will be difficult for box turtles to be reintroduced to the area.
Our reintroduction of the Eastern box turtle species to the Sweetwater Creek state park is vital because the park wants to re-establish its biodiversity and species richness and bring back the native animals. Our plan would be to move the box turtles that are in an unfavorable condition, (such as human disturbance of turtle habitats because of developments or human cruelty towards the turtle pets), to the park. In this way, depressed box turtles would be able to repopulate in an undisrupted environment. However, reintroduction of box turtles would take a while because the turtles would have to establish new home ranges, which means that the original turtles that would be moved to the site would need enough time to breed and have babies that would stay at that site. The parents would have a more difficult time adapting to their new environment because the park is not their original home range.
Looking at the number of acres of the park, we will need to reintroduce a large amount of box turtles to the area. Each box turtle home range is about an acre, so that means that we will ideally need to reintroduce about 2500 turtles to the entire area. If we break down the numbers, though, the park should have about 2000 turtles reintroduced to the land because if the park is overrun with turtles, then there could be an increased chance that disease and other density-dependent factors could occur. However, we will only be using 25 box turtles for this experiment because of the expenses and because of time. If money and time were not a limiting factor, though, then we would gradually increase the number of our box turtles to the 2000 turtles and be able to track their reproductive rates and lifestyle. But, for right now, we will only have a total of 15 female and 10 male turtles in order to manageably track their lifestyle and movements during the first 6 months of reintroduction. The box turtles will be put in an enclosed space for a certain amount of time, so they will not try to return to their original home range, and then after the first two months have passed, they should be released. When they are released, we will track them with a receiver, transmitter, and an antenna for the next four months.
Although this task will be expensive, (a total of about $3,000 if you add in the cost of the equipment and the cost of finding the box turtles), it will be beneficial to the environment because it will repopulate the area with the park’s original animals and will help create more biodiversity. Below, we have a list of problems and solutions as to how we will reintroduce and manage our box turtles in the park.
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS:
1. Problem- Reintroduction and Home Ranges
Often times, when box turtles are relocated to new areas, they don’t know the lay of the land, and are not sure what to do and where to go to find necessary resources. They are not used to the new surrounding area, and they do not know where resources such as water, food (see previous paragraph), and shelter are. According to The Effects of Relocation on Movements and Home Ranges of Eastern Box Turtles, an article published in The Journal of Wildlife Management by biologists Joy M. Hester, Steven J. Price, and Michael E. Dorcas, box turtles that are transported to new areas typically travel more and have much bigger home ranges as opposed to box turtles who haven’t been relocated. In the study, out of ten box turtles relocated, five died or disappeared, as opposed to 0 from the control group (turtles who weren’t relocated). The turtles died from lack of food and water, new predators, and from cars and roads they were not aware of. The article proposes that relocation of box turtles should be a last resort, because it is so dangerous for them.
However, one way to make the relocation and repopulation of box turtles as safe as possible is to pen turtles for several months after their relocation so that they can develop home ranges. By introducing the turtles to the environment safely with the security that researchers and scientists could provide over a year, it could very well save the lives of many box turtles. After introducing the box turtles outside of the pens, monitoring their movements through telemetry or GPS tracking could track the turtles’ home ranges and provide adequate information for where the safest areas for box turtles are, which would be helpful for further reintroduction or movement if necessary.
2. Problem - Food
No organisms will every thrive in an environment where there is no form of sustenance available to them. Eastern box turtles are omnivores, so the right balance of eating plants and small animals is important to their development. The issue with introducing box turtles into a new habitat is that they might not be able to find the right kind of food, and the large amount of it to sustain themselves. Box turtles are able to eat almost any type of plant available, and a select few amount of insects and small animals, but the if there is not an abundance of one or either of those things, the turtle population will suffer.
One of the ways to make sure this doesn’t happen is to grow the plants that the turtles will eat, such as mushrooms and berries, well in advance of their arrival, so that there will be an abundance of them when the turtles show up. The way to fulfill the turtles’ carnivorous needs is to simply introduce more of their prey into the habitat. Box turtles eat a variety of insects and small organisms such as worms, slugs, caterpillars, beetles, and snails, so the prey populations need time to thrive before the turtles start to eat them.
3. Problem- Predators
When box turtles are reintroduced to a new habitat, finding food is very important. However, there exists the possibility that they themselves could become food. Sweetwater Creek is home to bobcats, foxes, and raccoons, three known predators of the box turtle. The way for humans to control box turtle predation is by limiting the number of predators in the wild. There must always be predators of box turtles so their population stays in control, but if these large animals are abundant, turtle populations will suffer.
If the box turtles were first introduced in a pen, then they would be protected from the outside predators that would otherwise be able to come and eat them. This pen model of keeping box turtles safe is described in The Effects of Relocation on Movements and Home Ranges of Eastern Box Turtles article written in The Journal of Wildlife Management. This would enable them to be protected from predators, and allow them to establish a familiar home range. If turtles were enclosed in this pen for a year, then they would have adequate time to get used to the area, and predators could be relocated to different areas. Plus, during this time, the turtles would mate in the spring and summer, and the turtles would lay their eggs in the protected pen, which could be monitored and protected, which would protect the baby turtles from
4. Problem- Disease
It is possible for relocated box turtles to have different diseases and immune systems than box turtles from the original location. If box turtles from completely unfamiliar and different environments are placed into SweetWater Creek, then the turtles would be unable to protect themselves from the different diseases.
A solution to this problem would be to introduce box turtles from areas that are as close as possible to SweetWater Creek. That way, when these turtles are introduced, they will be more familiar with the conditions and diseases that affect the area. That will lead to longer living box turtles, and will lead to their genes being passed on to their offspring. These turtles would not necessarily have to adapt to diseases that already affect the area, because they or their parents would already be able to handle it.
5. Problem - Road Mortality
Road mortality is one of the biggest causes for premature death among box turtles. Sometimes, roads can act as barriers against a box turtle’s natural habitat. They can block a box turtle’s range, which can limit their habitat into isolated patches. Whenever a box turtle crosses the road, it will probably end up getting run over and killed by a vehicle. If a box turtle’s habitat is too close to the road, then it may end up wandering onto the road and risking death. Road mortality serves as one of the big threats to box turtles. Specifically, in SweetWater Creek, the park is surrounded by roads and highways, as it is just 15 minutes away from downtown Atlanta.
Finding a solution to this issue is difficult. However, one possible solution would be to somehow block off the area between a box turtle’s habitat and the road itself. Some sort of fencing can be used to attempt to prevent the box turtles from entering roads. By blocking their way onto roads, it will protect them from cars and trucks going by, and it would separate them from human contact. But if a box turtle is seen wandering on the road, then the best thing to do would be to simply pick it up and safely place it on the side that it was trying to reach.
A future study for box turtles in helping the management plan can be to conduct an experiment of relocating box turtles into a new habitat. The turtles will be in pens for the first several months in order to protect them from any kind of predator that may try to harm them. Penning the box turtles will also help to establish a new home range for them. The box turtles used will be previously from areas close by SweetWater Creek in order to eliminate the chance of disease. The best place to conduct this experiment would be lower part of the history trail of Sweetwater Creek since it is close to a water source and is a good distance away from the roads. Once the pens are released, GPS tracking devices can be placed onto the box turtles. The GPS tracking devices will help in giving information on the box turtle’s preferred habitat. From this point on, scientists simply need to regularly monitor the box turtles to see whether or not the experiment has been a success. To monitor what the box turtles eat, scientists can observe what food sources are available in the box turtle’s home range. Studies can also be done on the feces of the box turtles to obtain more information about the turtle’s diet.
RELATE TO LOVETT:
You may be asking yourself, “What’s the point? What is the point of protecting these turtles? No one ever sees them unless they go out hunting for them, and protecting them sounds like a huge amount of money.” And it’s true. It will cost some money to protect these animals from being killed off, and the turtles are rarely seen unless someone randomly stumbles upon them. But these turtles are an incredibly important part of the niche web that surrounds our school. By removing any species from the environment, it alters the entire dynamic of the environment. It would be removing an integral part of our school. Lovett claims to be an environmentally sustainable school, and it is revered as one of the best examples in Atlanta of a environmentally friendly school. However, through the construction of new playing fields, parking lots, buildings, and the necessary infrastructure that accompanies these things, huge spaces of habitat are destroyed. The homes of countless fauna and flora are destroyed, and these animals are displaced and often die because of it. For example, box turtles, when displaced, often wish to return home to their home range, but if their home range is a parking lot, then there is a huge risk for the box turtle to be run over. Development of new parking lots, playing fields, and buildings can be incredibly harmful to all animals living in the area. It is incredibly important to conserve the spaces that are currently healthy and unpopulated by people because it houses thousands of animals. By protecting and conserving the lives of box turtles, we are able to keep an important species and contributor to the Lovett community alive, which is always a good thing.