POPLAR ISLAND — The Maryland Environmental Service on Tuesday, Aug. 20, released several terrapins on Poplar Island as part of its ongoing effort to provide hands-on education to Maryland students while restoring and maintaining the island’s wildlife habitats.
Students participating in the Terrapin Education and Research on Poplar (TERP) program care for the hatchlings during the school year from fall to spring, all while collecting data, observing behavior and researching the natural history of the state reptile.
The students’ work gives the groups of young terrapins what MES calls a “head start” to a successful life in the wild.
The special care the turtles receive through the program has proven effective in boosting their natural growth rate, allowing nine-month-old terrapins to grow to the size of a three- to five-year-old turtle in the wild.
MES teamed up with Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration, Arlington Echo and the National Aquarium to create TERP, which has since helped to head start more than 2,650 terrapins.
Across Maryland to date, 700 classes of students have been involved in Poplar Island terrapin releases. Of the more than 2,650 terrapins released on Poplar Island, 470 have stuck around and made the island their home, which is a win for the program, according to TERP organizers.
MES Outreach and Education Coordinator Laura Baker said the program is all about environmental literacy for upcoming generations.
“There’s a movement now to get kids outside and to use nature as a context for learning,” Baker said. “So, the kids are getting hands-on experience with a live animal. They’re learning how to take care of another living thing.”
None of this terrapin habitat restoration work would be possible, though, without continued efforts to restore Poplar Island itself, which in 1993, had eroded to five acres.
Luckily for Poplar Island, it’s located along a Port of Baltimore shipping channel that requires constant dredging and upkeep. The nearby dredged material has been able to be relocated and repurposed to restore the once-eroded island.
Poplar Island and its wildlife inhabitants are a beneficiary of Maryland’s Beneficial Use of Dredged Materials protocols. The land is now continually being restored, replaced and maintained.
Unlike dredging for other ports, ports in Maryland have complex dredging systems that must align with the region’s natural needs, Baker said.
“Maryland’s kind of a unique situation,” she said. “Because the Chesapeake Bay is a fragile ecosystem, we have to be very responsible with anything we do that might affect it.”
Baker said the terrapin program has been “very successful” since its inception, and there really aren’t any negatives to continuing it with new groups of students and terrapins each year.
MES’s restoration efforts have yielded success stories not only from terrapins, but from multiple other native species, as well. The release of healthy, community-raised turtles into an ecosystem with which they’re comfortable is a small part of an uphill battle toward maintaining environmental stability in Maryland.
The agency, with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which funds a large portion of the island’s restoration projects, is on track to restore Poplar to 1,715 acres when the dredging project is complete.
MES provides environmental field trips to Poplar Island, hands-on activities, speakers, tours, teacher resources, and various classroom programs to schools statewide. Most programs are for students Pre-k through 5th grade. For more information, visit https://menv.com/services/outreach-education-services.