Photo of bog turtle in its sphagnum moss wetlands habitat is available for media use with appropriate credit. Credit: Nathanael Stanek/Turtle Conservancy. Image is available for media use.

ASHEVILLE, N.C.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it would consider protecting the southern population of the imperiled bog turtle under the Endangered Species Act. The agency now has 12 months to decide whether to protect the turtle, which lives in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Service in January to protect the turtle.

“These intrepid little turtles need our help to survive, and this decision is a good first step,” said Will Harlan, a senior conservation advocate and scientist at the Center. “We need to protect the wetlands where these turtles live to keep them from going extinct. I hope the Service moves quickly to give southern bog turtles the safeguards they need.”

The bog turtle is North America’s smallest turtle, measuring about the length of a human thumb. It is also one of the continent’s most imperiled turtles: Its southern population has declined by at least 50% in the past two decades, and fewer than 2,000 individuals are left.

Habitat destruction and poaching are the primary causes of the bog turtles’ steep decline. Bog turtles live in marshy wetlands that are being drained for development. Only 500 acres of mountain bog habitat remain across the turtles’ entire southern range.

Bog turtles are divided into northern and southern populations. The northern population was listed as threatened under federal law in 1997, but the southern population was not, and in the past two decades, its numbers have plummeted. Only 14 viable sites remain across the turtle’s entire five-state southern range.

Full protection as an endangered species would ensure that bog turtles and their remaining habitat are safeguarded. It would also require a federal recovery plan to restore bog turtle populations.

“Watching these turtles disappear forever would be heartbreaking,” said Will Harlan. “We can save the southern bog turtle, but we need to act now.”