Mortality of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene c. carolina) After a Growing Season Prescribed Fire

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Fire is a key natural process that has shaped ecosystem distribution and composition for hundreds of millions of years. Prescribed fire has become a common and important technique in habitat management. With its ability to alter physical and vegetative conditions, prescribed fire has the potential to change wildlife habitat characteristics in ways that benefit or harm populations of wildlife, but implications for reptiles are considered only infrequently. In May and June 2018, a prescribed burn was conducted in Rhode Island, USA. After reports of dead Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene c. carolina), we initiated surveys in the burned area to gauge the extent of mortality and develop guidance to protect Eastern Box Turtle populations where prescribed fire is used. We found 49 dead Eastern Box Turtles across a 31.2 ha area, and based on the available evidence, we suspect that 47 of those were killed as a direct result of the prescribed fire. The post-burn mortality observed during this study is the latest among a growing list of observations of significant mortality of box turtles associated with fire, both wild and prescribed. We urge land managers to carefully consider the location, timing, and frequency of prescribed burns within the range of the Eastern Box Turtle and consider mechanical treatments as an alternative to meet habitat management goals, or prior to burning to reduce fire intensity in sensitive areas. Burning during the growing season is particularly problematic due to the high risk to box turtles active on the surface.

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Herpetological Conservation and Biology