News  Landmark Turtle Conservation Program Celebrated for Endangered Species Day

With support from partners, MassWildlife's northern red-bellied cooter headstart program has boosted endangered turtle populations over the past 40 years.
  • Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
  • Department of Fish and Game

Media Contact   for Landmark Turtle Conservation Program Celebrated for Endangered Species Day

Media Contact, MassWildlife

northern red-bellied cooters basking in the sun

WestboroughIn honor of Endangered Species Day, state and federal officials were joined by over 100 students, researchers, and other partners on Wednesday to celebrate an important milestone for endangered turtle conservation in Massachusetts. This year marks the 40th anniversary of MassWildlife’s cooter headstart program—one of the longest and most intensive freshwater turtle headstart conservation programs in existence.

The northern red-bellied cooter is listed as endangered under the federal and state endangered species acts. Through the headstart program, turtle hatchlings are removed from the wild in early fall and paired with educational and scientific facilities from across the state. For 8–9 months, the turtles live in a warm aquarium environment with unlimited food. This greatly accelerates the growth of the turtles and reduces the likelihood of death from predators during a turtle’s first year of life when they are most vulnerable, giving each turtle a "head start" at life before release back into the wild.

“Congratulations to MassWildlife on 40 years of their northern red-bellied cooter headstart program,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber. “It is strong partnerships like this one that make conserving species for future generations possible.”

“This year, we will be tagging and releasing the 5,000th headstarted hatchling into ponds and waterways in southeastern Massachusetts since the first release in 1984,” said Dr. Mike Jones, MassWildlife’s State Herpetologist. “When the headstart project began, the estimated population was only 300 cooters in Massachusetts, and it’s now over 2,000.”

On Wednesday, partnering cooperators brought headstarted turtles to MassWildlife Field Headquarters before their release back into the wild. Before release, MassWildlife biologists insert a Passive Integrated Tag (PIT) into the turtle for identification, tracking, and monitoring. The turtles are then ready to be released in areas where they hatched or in a nearby, suitable reintroduction site.

Like most Massachusetts turtles, northern red-bellied cooter hatchlings have many predators and few make it to adulthood and reproductive age. Habitat loss and poaching for the illegal pet trade further threaten native turtles. For a recovery project to be successful in the face of these threats, it takes a variety of local, state, and federal entities working together. Over 430 plants and animals, including the red-bellied cooter, are protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

“Thanks to long-term partnerships between MassWildilfe and headstart groups, the future of the northern red-bellied cooter is looking hopeful,” said Audrey Mayer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service New England Field Office Supervisor. “The headstart program has given a boost to local populations and improved the likelihood of the species’ recovery, while helping educate the public about the challenges facing turtles and many other types of wildlife.”

“Each one of these listed species plays an important role in keeping the Commonwealth's natural communities thriving,” explained Mark Tisa, MassWildlife Director. “Together with our partners, we are ensuring the survival of our most imperiled species by restoring populations, safeguarding habitats, and educating the public.”

“Remarkable progress has been made to conserve this species thanks to the commitment of the program participants who’ve cared for these endangered turtles over the years to give them the best chance of survival in the wild,” said Department of Fish & Game Commissioner Tom O'Shea. “As our Department develops the strongest biodiversity conservation goals in the nation, this program is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we come together for endangered species.”

2024 Headstarting partner organizations include: Bristol County Agricultural High School, Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Carver Middle-High School, Dighton Middle School, Eagle Hill School, EcoTarium, Essex Tech, Hingham Middle School, Mass Audubon Long Pasture, Minuteman Regional High School, Museum of Science, Narragansett Regional High School, New England Wildlife Center, Norwood High School, SE MA Pine Barrens, Southeastern Regional, Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School, Westborough – Gibbons Middle School, and Wheaton College.

Students, researchers, and state and federal officials gather to celebrate turtle conservation success.
Students and researchers along with state and federal officials gather at MassWildlife's Field Headquarters to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the northern red-bellied cooter headstart program.
2 northern red-bellied cooters
Headstarting is a conservation technique in which turtles are raised in captivity to give them an advantage to surviving into adulthood. These two turtles are the same age, but the larger turtle was part of the headstart program and the smaller turtle was not.
biologists measure and tag turtles
MassWildlife biologists measure and tag the turtles before releasing them into suitable habitat. Over 5,000 turtles have been released since the program started in 1984. In several ponds where they have been released in earlier decades, headstarted adult turtles are now successfully laying their own eggs.

Media Contact   for Landmark Turtle Conservation Program Celebrated for Endangered Species Day

  • Division of Fisheries and Wildlife 

    MassWildlife is responsible for the conservation of freshwater fish and wildlife in the Commonwealth, including endangered plants and animals. MassWildlife restores, protects, and manages land for wildlife to thrive and for people to enjoy.
  • Department of Fish and Game 

    The Department of Fish and Game works to preserve the state's natural resources. We exercise responsibility over the Commonwealth's marine and freshwater fisheries, wildlife species, plants, and natural communities, as well as the habitats that support them.
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