Jon Regosin cares for species from grasshopper sparrows to bog turtles in the vernal pools, pine barrens, and other habitats of Massachusetts
If you haven’t seen a Blanding’s turtle, you’re not alone.
The elusive reptile—known for its sunny-yellow throat and an upturned beak that some people might compare to a smile—lives along Massachusetts’ busy I-495 corridor. In spite of its habitat, or maybe because of it, the Blanding’s turtle is timid. “It’s not one of these turtles that spend a lot of time sitting on logs,” says Jon Regosin, AG03, deputy director of Massachusetts’ Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, or MassWildlife for short.
In Massachusetts, Blanding’s turtles are also threatened, making your odds of spotting one even lower.
In terms of vulnerability, the turtles represent a perfect storm, says Regosin, who received his Ph.D. in biology from Tufts. First, their already human-dense habitat is susceptible to further residential and commercial development. And then there’s the species’ propensity to feed in woodland vernal pools and to travel long distances—across busy roads, for example—to nest in open fields and gravel pits.
It’s the kind of fragile wildlife habitat equation Regosin and the 150-person agency keep a close eye on, although he stresses that, with a budget of nearly $20 million, MassWildlife’s mandate covers all of the commonwealth’s animals, not only the ones at risk.
"We want people to understand what we do and why we do it. Sometimes that involves cutting trees, which might not look great [right away]. Hopefully, the community buys in."
Also on his watch list are the globally significant pine barrens located in coastal areas of Southeast Massachusetts, including on Cape Cod. Those sandy, acidic enclaves are home to the threatened grasshopper sparrow, whose preferred habitat of open, uncluttered undergrowth requires prescribed burns to keep invasive plants at bay. And where there’s fire, there can be grumpy landowners.
“When you start to have even low-density development across a landscape, you have to worry about smoke drifting onto adjacent properties,” Regosin says. “Even if there’s still a lot of habitat, that’s an example of habitat fragmentation that can lead to problems.”
Encroaching humans aren’t the only troublemakers. In the rare calcium-rich fens of western Massachusetts, phragmites, an invasive plant, is the interloper, crowding out the native salad bar on which the endangered bog turtle depends.
All is not lost. MassWildlife has a strategy, in the form of the State Wildlife Action Plan, updated every 10 years. The 2015 installment identified 435 animal species that are threatened, endangered, or of special concern, plus 135 more species the agency is tracking, just in case.
MassWildlife also publishes something called the Biomap, a conservation-planning tool used by the agency, as well as land trusts and municipalities statewide, to identify large-scale parcels of land ripe for purchase and protection. In fall 2022, for example, MassWildlife partnered with a sister agency, the Department of Fish and Game, to protect 186 acres on Mount Watatic that are home to declining populations of songbirds, such as the prairie warbler and the eastern towhee.
Regosin especially likes projects, such as the Mount Watatic one, that require cooperation. “It costs a lot of money to buy land,” he says, and once you do, it costs more money to manage the property. Sometimes, the price of conservation can be a disincentive, and working together can reduce the burden all around.
For that reason, in 2015 MassWildlife introduced its Habitat Management Grant Program, which funds projects not restricted to state land. “These landscapes are under multiple ownerships,” Regosin says. “The species cross all these boundaries.”
In other words, turtles and birds don’t stop and turn around when they come to a property line. Any land that could provide safe haven might be worth investing in. Entities from towns to private landowners with conservation easements can apply for grant funding. Potential projects include revegetation of an eroded riverbank and removal of culverts that block fish passage.
Before MassWildlife launches a project, the agency often hosts a walk on the property, which is open to the public. “Part of it is, we want to be a good neighbor. We want to be engaged in the communities we’re working in,” Regosin says.
The other part is education. “For example, people might not be aware that a lot of pollinators nest in the ground, and having exposed soil can be important,” he says. “We want people to understand what we do and why we do it. Sometimes that involves cutting trees, which might not look great [right away]. Hopefully, the community buys in.”
Caring for animals and their habitat requires long-term strategy, and climate change is never far from Regosin’s mind. “One thing we keep an eye on is the drought,” he says, referring to 2022’s statewide rain shortage, “and whether it’s a trend that’s increasing.” A drought can lead to lower water levels, which in turn can lead to increased vegetation. Warmer water temperatures are another consequence of drought. That can lead to less oxygen in the water, which can lead to fish species dying off.
“You can’t do everything everywhere,” Regosin says. “But there are some things that can be done.”