The program is part of the ongoing partnership between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (GPCA), Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC), Tennessee Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta, U.S. Forest Service, Atlanta Botanical Garden, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
These agencies and organizations formed a partnership to spearhead the Georgia Mountain Bog Enhancement Project, which includes the on-going Bog Turtle Headstart/Population Establishment effort for the federally and state listed bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii).
The Bog Turtle Headstart effort began in 2003 with the gathering of egg-bearing female bog turtles from wild populations on private lands within Georgia. These females were monitored and allowed to deposit their eggs in captivity. The bog turtle eggs were incubated in a way that mimicked natural bog conditions. After hatching, the bog turtle hatchlings were transferred to the Tennessee Aquarium and CNC for the 22-month rearing period.
During June of 2005, the seven bog turtles that hatched in 2003 were released at a restored mountain bog habitat in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Union County.
The Bog Turtle Headstarts goal is to release approximately 20 juveniles per year to successfully establish a population over a five to ten year period. To date, 17 individual bog turtles have been released within a restored mountain bog habitat within Union County on the Chattahoochee National Forest. Without hibernation and a continued feeding regime, Headstart bog turtles can reach adult size in two years and are ready for release. Bog turtles in the wild may take 6–8 years to reach adult size.
Range-wide, bog turtles have experienced their greatest decline in numbers due to loss of habitat. Alteration of habitat disturbance regimes and agricultural drainage of bog habitat often leads to the extirpation of the bog turtle through the elimination of suitable basking, foraging, and nesting sites. Plants and animals associated with mountain bog habitats have become increasingly rare simply because their habitat is becoming increasing rare.
Because Southern Appalachian mountain bogs are early successional habitats that naturally succeed to forested communities, animals such as the bog turtle that depend on them are adapted to seek out new sites once previous ones become densely forested or hydrologically unsuitable.
Historically, however, greater equilibrium existed between bog succession and bog creation through natural disturbance. Today, the rate of bog loss far exceeds the rate of bog creation, as most mountain bog wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses over the years, as these flat areas (where private property is concentrated in the Georgia mountains) are also ideal locations for towns, roads, reservoirs, and farms.
Stream impoundment, stream channelization, and human intolerance for allowing natural beaver disturbance have significantly reduced bog habitat on the landscape as well. Over the short run, because factors of natural disturbance needed to maintain mountain bog habitats in an early stage of succession have been eliminated (e.g., grazing by bison and elk), significantly reduced (e.g., impoundment by beaver), and largely excluded from the landscape (e.g., natural fire regime), those charged with the conservation of bog flora and fauna and this rare habitat must maintain the last remaining bog habitats on the landscape by mimicking the effects of natural disturbances artificially.
Consequently, the Georgia's Bog Turtle Headstart Program is conducted in concert with efforts spearheaded by the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance to restore mountain bog habitats throughout Georgia's Blue Ridge through reduction of woody vegetation and in some cases, restoration of wetland hydrology.
The bog turtle is a small freshwater species reaching only 4.5 inches in maximum length. It presents a prominent orange, yellow or red blotch on each side of the head behind the eye. Bog turtles are primarily active during spring, early summer and early fall and can be found basking on top of grass clumps and feeding on various sources like berries, insects, crayfish and tadpoles. During the winter and late summer months, bog turtles use mammal burrows and mucky soil as suitable retreats for hibernation.