by Eric Munscher and Jordan Gray 

Another field year has closed for the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG), and one word describes 2016 best: Eventful. For the third year in a row we captured and processed over 3,000 turtles representing 23 taxa. This species total is the highest diversity we have seen since our inception 17 years ago. The 2016 field season was a year of project site expansion, which contributed to this increase in species diversity. Other contributing factors were a combination of program recruitment and collaboration. 

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NAFTRG began sampling two new study sites in Texas, including Bull Creek at the County Line BBQ restaurant in Travis County, and a bayou system in Harris County encompassing metropolitan Houston. 2016 once again demonstrated this research group’s passion to continue to perform long-term population monitoring research on species that are generally considered  common, as well as our desire to include new important sites into our overall goals. Additionally, we started an amazing collaboration for a long-term study on a once-common species, the North American wood turtle, in Pennsylvania with Steve Enders and the great guys of the Turtle Room. Three reconnaissance trips and the finalizing of two manageable sites have led to April 2017 as the anticipated start of a 10+ year monitoring project for the species. The addition of these sites brings our total to 13 managed and collaboratively managed field sites. 

Another once-common species, the alligator snapping turtle, will be a focus of our efforts in the Greater Houston Metropolitan Area. Listed as Threatened by the State of Texas, this species still has viable populations in the eastern quarter of the state and it is our goal, beginning in 2017, to quantify their numbers in one particular bayou system. NAFTRG was recently awarded permits by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division to perform long-term monitoring of the population at this extensive site after Director, Eric Munscher, and Senior Scientist, Jordan Gray, captured several during a species census this past October.

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Volunteer participation, the life-blood of NAFTRG, was strong this year with over 300 volunteers throughout all of our study sites. Although the Southeast is well represented in our volunteer effort, participants came from as far as California, Alaska, and Maine, as well. These 300 + volunteers represented a multitude of interest groups including non-profits, government agencies, colleges and universities, environmental consulting firms, and veterinary practices. Additionally, NAFTRG is collaborating with Dr. Jerry Johnston and his research crew with the ongoing studies at Ichetucknee Springs, Florida.

One of the keys to long-term success with our study sites is garnering community support and interest in what we do. This September, we began a new working relationship with the County Line BBQ in Austin, Texas which sits directly adjacent to our new long-term monitoring project at Bull Creek. The County Line BBQ treated our researchers to great BBQ and facilitated a wonderful environment for community outreach to Travis County natives and tourists alike. Our first sample at this site resulted in 223 turtles representing 6 taxa, as well as generating an interview which was broadcast on National Public Radio. We foresee this to be an excellent relationship for years to come. 

Another example of community support can be seen in our partnerships with two breweries this year. In Pennsylvania, we partnered with the Spoonwood Brewery, holding an outreach and fundraising event that packed the venue and allowed attendees the chance to interact with a variety of chelonians provided by the Turtle Room. In Texas, we partnered with the Greater Houston chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers (GHAAZK) at Karbach Brewery in Houston for an outreach and fundraising event. Both events were highly attended, raised money for turtle research, and spread chelonian conservation awareness. We plan to continue the relationship with these breweries and organizations and make more collaborative relationships in 2017.

NAFTRG published two  manuscripts concerning our population work at Volusia Blue Springs and large snapping turtles in the freshwater springs of Florida. In addition, a bait preference study on the eastern musk turtle was accepted for publication in early 2017. This year’s TSA Symposium on the Conservation of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in New Orleans, Louisiana saw four presentations by NAFTRG members concerning work at various sites around the country. Additionally, NAFTRG Director Eric Munscher was selected to Chair a session on chelonians of freshwater spring systems . Several NAFTRG members also presented outreach presentations to various schools and interest groups.

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With NAFTRG funded through grants, the end of the year has been a busy time on the computer; working to establish funds for our projects in 2017 and beyond. We currently have numerous grant proposals under review with high hopes that their acceptance will lead to bigger and better work in 2017. One grant that was awarded in 2016 was Disney’s Conservation Fund, and will provide funding for a movement and range study of peninsula and red-belly cooters in Florida. It is our hopes to begin funding Masters of Science students in the future with some of the money awarded by these grants.

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With 2016 wrapping up, we are taking a step back to review our successes and identify our areas for growth to strategize how we can continue to build a greater network and facilitate better long-term population research for 2017 and beyond. Although 2016 was a great year for us, 2017 is shaping up to be unprecedented concerning field work and publication submissions. We look forward to adding more volunteers, engaging greater community and public support, strengthening our collaborations, and continuing to understand and protect North American freshwater turtles.