It was a picture-perfect spring afternoon when Jeff Baker and Chad Fitch pushed back from a remote boat landing at Smith Lake in Winston County.
As the sun dipped low beyond the trees, Baker steered the Alabama Power flat-bottom boat toward a sandstone shelf edging property owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Fitch, meanwhile, began loading chicken gizzards, purchased at a local supermarket, into a stack of fish traps.
Slowly and methodically, Baker inched the boat along the shelf, stopping at spots about 30 feet apart. At each pause, Fitch carefully sank a trap so it was sitting just below the surface, tethering each one in place with a cord tied to an overhanging limb or bush – 20 traps in all.
Then, with the sun quickly setting, Baker turned the boat and raced full speed across the lake to another section of National Forest, where the same regimen was repeated with 10 additional traps.
It’s a routine Baker and Fitch know well. For more than a decade, the two company biologists have been setting traps to temporarily capture a tiny turtle found nowhere else but in the upper reaches of the Black Warrior River watershed.
And, as is always the case, the two wouldn’t know until the next morning whether they were lucky enough to snare any.
“Sometimes we get skunked,” Fitch said, and nary a turtle is found. But other times, they will gather a bounty.
Every captured turtle is released, after the catch is documented and the appropriate data collected. That data is then shared with others who share a similar passion for preserving this elusive, aquatic creature.
It’s all part of an ongoing effort – with multiple partners – to protect and, over time, expand the turtle’s preferred habitat in the upper Black Warrior watershed, including Smith Lake.
“Our goal is to help them continue to survive, and to maximize the opportunity for protecting them,” Baker said.
A springtime tradition
They may not be much to look at, and the name is hardly dynamic or romantic. But the flattened musk turtle – scientific name Sternotherus depressus – is nothing if not a survivor.
For 35 years this small, freshwater turtle has occupied a spot on the federal endangered species list. Over many decades, its habitat has contracted – the victim of development, water quality challenges and other factors. For a time, the turtles themselves were targets: trapped and sold as part of the commercial pet trade.
But over the past decade, a collaborative initiative that includes Alabama Power, public agencies and residents and businesses around Smith Lake have helped raise the turtle’s profile – while raising hopes for a better, more stable future for this understated animal.
Since 2011, Baker and Fitch have been knee-deep in the efforts to better understand the turtle’s habits and habitat. Meanwhile, others at the power company and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have lent their expertise to help protect and enhance Smith Lake’s shoreline to make it an even better place for the turtles to live and breed.
As for seeing one yourself, don’t expect to encounter the turtle during a casual cruise on Smith Lake. The brown-speckled turtle rarely grows larger than 4 inches. It’s also a slow traveler; the nocturnal turtle rarely moves more than a few hundred feet during its spring nesting season, and pretty much stays submerged during daylight hours, and much of the night.
Baker and Fitch know this, because they’ve attached tiny transmitters to some of the turtles to track their wanderings. And because of their tendency to be even less active during the day, the best time to trap them is after dark.
Over the years, chicken gizzards have proved to be a tasty enticement to trap the turtles. (When store-bought poultry isn’t served to them by Baker and Fitch, the turtles tend to survive as juveniles on soft-body bugs, and then chewy mussels and other freshwater mollusks as adults.)
Springtime mating season is when the trappings typically take place – when the turtles are friskiest. Still, the slippery species isn’t easy to snag.
On an early morning in April, some 12 hours after Baker and Fitch set the aforementioned 30 traps at the two sites, the men returned to check on the traps. As the sun rose over a calm and quiet Smith Lake, its surface a mirror, except for filmy swirls of springtime pollen, the anticipation of capturing a turtle, or more than one, was palpable.
The first site had never been surveyed before and was not considered prime turtle habitat, so the expectations were muted. The Forest Service is considering making improvements along this section of shoreline – part of the Bankhead National Forest that has been adversely affected by erosion from boat wakes and other conditions – to make it more conducive for the turtles and other aquatic species. The data gathered by Baker and Fitch during the trapping operation – whether or not turtles are found – is expected to help support the potential project, including any attempt to secure federal dollars for the undertaking.
One by one, Fitch pulled up the traps. In some, he scored a flapping menagerie of long-eared sunfish, green sunfish and bluegills. There were also leaves and other lake debris, but no turtles.
The biologists then crossed the lake to the second site where traps were placed the prior afternoon. This site, also National Forest lands but considered better turtle habitat, had yielded turtles during an earlier trapping operation in 2014.
Again, Fitch fished out the traps. Again, no flattened musk turtles.
But to everyone’s surprise, something else was ensnared in one of the traps – something no one expected.
Allison Cochran is a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, based in Double Springs. She noted that resources are always limited when it comes to protecting endangered species at Smith Lake, in the Bankhead National Forest and other places around Alabama. That’s why collaboration is key: bringing together all interested parties from the public and private sectors to share knowledge, assets and strategies so they are all pulling in the same direction.
Cochran praised the partnership that has developed to protect creatures like the flattened musk turtle and Black Warrior waterdog – efforts that include Alabama Power and the Forest Service; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the Geological Survey of Alabama; the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; the Alabama Natural Heritage Program at Auburn University; researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham; as well as private consultants and businesses, nonprofits and others working together under an umbrella group known as the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network.
“We are so few people in Alabama in the aquatic conservation community, with limited budgets and capacity, so we cannot be successful, in my opinion, without working together.
“We’re learning everything we can to conserve and hopefully recover the species,” Cochran said.
One way the partners are working to protect the species and help grow its population is supporting efforts to improve turtle habitat along the shoreline of Smith Lake – increasing the number of places where the turtles can shelter and successfully breed.
Scientists have learned that the seawalls many people built over the years along the shoreline are not ideal for the turtles. Instead, the turtles prefer a more natural-style water’s edge, with rocks, timber and other natural materials that have “nooks and crannies” where they can safely live and mate.
In 2012, Alabama Power, in coordination with federal officials, updated the company’s shoreline permitting requirements for areas on Smith Lake identified as flattened musk turtle habitat or potential habitat. Under the revised guidelines, when seawalls fall into disrepair and reconstruction is required, or when erosion issues need to be addressed, residents in the identified areas must use a more natural method to stabilize the shoreline. Known as enhanced natural stabilization, or ENS, the method is proving effective in helping support turtle populations.
Since the change in permitting requirements, Alabama Power personnel have worked to build awareness among lakeside residents, business owners and construction contractors about ENS and its benefits.
Of the 642 miles of shoreline on Smith Lake, more than 260 miles are considered “suitable” habitat (identified as either good or moderate) for the flattened musk turtle. That’s a lot of territory, and property owners to inform.
“We’ve worked really hard to communicate with the customers and build relationships,” said Stacy Thompson, a water compliance specialist in Alabama Power’s Environmental Affairs organization. She noted that the company communicates closely with federal agencies charged with protecting the turtle, to help ensure that shoreline stabilization projects are done correctly – and only at the right time of the year. The shoreline improvements in areas with suitable habitat can take place only in the fall and winter, when the turtles aren’t active.
And while the process can be more complex than simply building a seawall, Smith Lake residents are increasingly embracing ENS.
“I think it’s great, it’s wonderful,” said Leslie Edens. Since 2020, she and her husband, Tim, have lived year-round on Smith Lake in Winston County, near Brushy Creek. The Edens and a neighboring landowner have both repaired their eroding shoreline using ENS, and Leslie is thrilled with the results.
“We love it. I would say the view is better than it was.” Leslie said she prefers the more natural-looking water’s edge. On her property it’s a combination of varied-sized rocks, timber and native plantings.
She said she enjoys observing an array of wildlife on the lake and on her piece of the shoreline, from turtles to snakes to bald eagles and a variety of other birds. “The birds around here, they’re crazy; we have so many.”
“I’m all for the turtles, I’m all for wildlife,” Leslie said.
Cochran praised the years of work and study by Baker and Fitch, and the entire Alabama Power team working on Smith Lake, calling them “consummate professionals.”
“They do an incredible job,” Cochran said. “It’s super helpful to the Forest Service.”
“It’s a great partnership,” Cochran added. “It’s a very fruitful relationship.”
A surprising find
Back on the water in April, the search for flattened musk turtles – this time – turned out to be not so fruitful. But as Fitch hauled in one of the last baited traps, there was a surprising discovery.
Inside was a tiny turtle, but not of the flattened musk variety. It had a spiny backside and a patterned underside the color of sea foam.
At first glance, Baker and Fitch weren’t sure what species they had captured. So, they texted a photo to an expert.
Hours later, the answer came back. To everyone’s amazement, it was a juvenile Graptemys pulchra or Alabama map turtle, a state-protected species. Over a span of more than 10 years trapping turtles on Smith Lake, Baker and Fitch had never seen one.
Cochran, too, was pleasantly surprised when she learned of the unexpected catch.
It was a cool twist to a day that otherwise would have been mildly disappointing.
On the other hand, as almost anyone who loves nature and the outdoors would say, a disappointing day on the lake beats a good day in the office, every time.
Tips for turtles, cleaner water and a better environment
Here are some simple tips for residents and visitors that can help protect wildlife and water quality at Smith Lake, which is also an important regional drinking water source. These same tips are recommended for all Alabama Power lakes:
Go natural – When landscaping your lakeside property, use more native plants and less grass, which often requires herbicides and fertilizer. Or even better, leave the land as natural as possible.
Fight erosion and sedimentation – These are some of the greatest threats to wildlife and water quality. Proper shoreline management is key to reducing erosion and the amount of unwanted sediment sliding into the lake. For guidance and information about permitting requirements for any proposed shoreline construction, property owners can contact the Alabama Power Shoreline Management office at Smith Lake at 205-384-7385, or through www.apcshorelines.com or the Smart Lakes app. And if you’re a boater, keep those erosion-inducing wakes to a minimum when close to shore.
Check that septic system – Poorly operating septic systems can lead to some nasty stuff leaching into a lake. Make sure you are properly maintaining your septic system, and scheduling an inspection and routine pumping as recommended by your service provider.
Don’t litter – The trash you leave behind can make its way into the lake after the next rainstorm. This includes stray fishhooks and old fishing line, which can strangle wildlife. Dispose of trash properly, and recycle whenever possible.
Interested in helping keep Alabama lakes and rivers clean? Join other volunteers at the next Renew Our Rivers cleanup. View the latest schedule at www.apcshorelines.com or by searching for “Renew Our Rivers” at www.alabamapower.com.
This story originally appeared in Powergrams, Alabama Power’s employee magazine.