WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three species of turtles in Maine are among the 53 species of reptiles and amphibians the Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to safeguard under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The nonprofit organization filed the 450-page petition Wednesday — what it’s calling the “largest petition ever filed” to target reptiles and amphibians for protection — along with the signatures of notable scientists and herpetologists including E.O. Wilson, a distinguished Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Thomas Lovejoy, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University.
“Amphibians and reptiles face a profound, human-driven extinction crisis unlike any other. If we don’t act now, we’ll lose some of our natural world’s most important and fascinating citizens,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a biologist and lawyer focused on reptiles and amphibians for the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release.
If the wood turtle, spotted turtle and Blanding’s turtle were protected under the Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 1973 to protect imperiled species from extinction, there would be a 99 percent chance of averting extinction for those turtles, Adkins Giese said.
The biologist said the 99 percent figure comes from an analysis by the center which found that only two species became extinct while under protection by the Endangered Species Act.
“There’s a lot of respect for [turtles], and they need people to speak for them because they can’t talk,” said Allen Salzberg, a petition signer and turtle expert who runs a reptile and amphibian online newsletter called HerpDigest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which overlooks the endangered species program, will have 90 days to review the petition and determine whether there is substantial information, spokeswoman Meagan Racey said.
The spokeswoman said if substantial information is found, the Fish and Wildlife Service will initiate a 12-month review period in which they vet the petition with a number of experts and in-depth research.
Only two of the three turtle species are protected under the Maine Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 1975. The Blanding’s turtle is considered “endangered” while the spotted turtle is considered “threatened,” which gives them different levels of protection, said Jonathan Mays, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Mays said the wood turtle is considered a “special concern” for the state, though it would take state legislation to list it under the state’s endangered or threatened list.
Since the wood turtle has a healthier population than the two other species, the biologist said, “it makes that responsibility more real.”
Mays said he has seen the center’s petition and agrees that many of the listed species should have become federally protected years ago, but added it might be difficult to argue for some of the species that have healthy populations in certain areas of the state.
“It’s going to be a hard sell to get those federally listed,” the biologist said.
Mays said many of the protections offered to endangered species are similar on the state and national levels, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dishes out heavier fines for harassing and capturing them.
While developments in Maine such as shopping malls, mining areas and large housing developments have to go through the Department of Environmental Protection and then the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to ensure protection of the environment and wildlife, the biologist said smaller developments don’t require large vetting processes, which means potential habitats for endangered species can be harmed or destroyed.
“Sometimes we lose habitat without even knowing about it,” Mays said.
For that reason, he said, adding federal protection to these species could make a difference: “If they were federally protected, there would be a lot of oversight.”