Rare turtle discovery at Mill Pond could force bridge fix

Egremont Conservation Commission members David Seligman and David Campbell. (Evan Triantafilidis)

EGREMONT — Peak turtle crossing season may not be for a few more months in the Berkshires, but that isn’t slowing local conservation efforts at Mill Pond in Egremont.

In fact, the discovery and recognition of an endangered species of turtle at Mill Pond, locally known as Smiley’s Pond, could expedite the fix of a turtle bridge crossing located at the intersection of the state-owned Route 41 and Route 23.

Egremont resident Ari Zorn, who has earned the title “Turtle Man” for his preservation efforts, appeared before the town’s Conservation Commission at their Thursday, Feb. 13 meeting, advocating for the repair of a turtle crossing bridge that runs below the road surface and above the pond’s dam.

Zorn previously came before the board in December and called for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to remediate their placement of small stones, or riprap, alongside the pond’s dam. Since then, Zorn says he has received documentation from MassWildlife’s National Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHES) that acknowledges his finding of a rare species of turtle.

Zorn hopes the status of the pond, as a habitat to one of the 432 native species of plants and animals protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, will put pressure on MassDOT to get to work on the turtle bridge.

The Conservation Commission has also deemed MassDOT’s initial replacement of the riprap as “not up to stone” at a previous meeting, and stood firm on their stance at the Feb. 13 meeting.

David Campbell, chairperson of the Egremont Conservation Commission, said that the plan would be revisited by MassDOT in the spring, but expressed the commission’s dissatisfaction with the state’s first attempt at the riprap fix.

“We have informed the state that we have understood, from various committees, that the plan as executed, was not what was intended,” Campbell said.

Conservation Commission member David Seligman recalled the original plan using a pressure-washed stream gravel, at a size to be less than one inch, to fill in the gaps of the existing and deteriorating riprap. He said the plan wasn’t followed. Instead, much larger-sized rocks were placed there.

Within his own communications with MassDOT, Zorn says previous coverage of preservation efforts at Smiley’s Pond has likely put the wheels into motion for a fix for the bridge. Zorn insists that MassDOT is the owner of the dam and says he isn’t done applying pressure to the state for them to upkeep and maintain their property.

“My plan is that I’m going to put so much pressure on them to do their job,” Zorn said. “I don’t feel like I am asking them to do anything that is out of the scope of their job.”

David Paulsen, a senior endangered species review biologist at NHES, says he’s aware of the concern of turtles crossing busy roads and intersections across the commonwealth, including at Smiley’s Pond in Egremont.

Typically, the active season for in-land turtles in Massachusetts runs generally between April and November, said Paulsen. He added that an uptick of turtle crossings begin in June and their traverse can sometimes cause cars to swerve off the road in order to avoid them. For specific types of turtles on the state’s endangered species list, an oncoming car in traffic could threaten an entire species of turtles, he said.

“A two percent increase in mortality can cause populations to decline rapidly,” Paulsen said.

Part of the preservation efforts of NHES, which could apply locally to Egremont, are the installation of seasonal signage, alerting drivers to potential turtle crossings. Currently, handmade signs are scattered across telephone polls in Berkshire County that attempt to do the same.

Paulsen also noted that land protection can be used as a tool to manage the landscapes often found in the Berkshires, including several mountains that are maintained by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Zorn’s idea of preserving the pond could arrive in similar fashion, he says. Along with posting scenic photos and videos of the pond and its wildlife on the Friends of Smiley’s Pond Facebook page, Zorn also hopes to engage in the preservation of the pond by potentially getting local and state conservation agencies to step in and help. Last summer, the pond and its four-bedroom property were listed for sale, by Great Barrington-based Lance Vermeulen Real Estate Inc.

Campbell said the Conservation Commission would be supportive of Zorn in preserving the pond, but at a pace that could come at the speed of a turtle.

“We got to deal with this one step at a time,” Campbell said. “If we could get this turtle crossing ramp fixed so it really works, I think that’s step one and the first box to check off.”

The Conservation Commission will next meet on Thursday, Feb. 27 at Town Hall.