April 4, 2018

PPS Students Promote Bog Turtle Bill; Sen. Bateman on Board in N.J. Senate

BOG TURTLE BILL: From left, Riverside fifth grader Vita Moss-Wang, John Witherspoon sixth grader Avi Weiss, Senator Kip Bateman, and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker prepare to testify in support of making the endangered bog turtle New Jersey’s official state reptile. (Photo Courtesy of SenateNJ.com)

By Donald Gilpin

The bog turtle (glyptemis muhlenbergii), one of the smallest and rarest turtles in North America, is on its way to becoming the first state reptile, if a bill promoted by Princeton Public School students and their teachers and sponsored by State Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman becomes law.

Avi Weiss, a John Witherspoon Middle School sixth grader, and Vita Moss-Wang, a Riverside Elementary School fifth grader, joined Bateman at last week’s state Senate hearing to testify in support of Bateman’s bill to designate the bog turtle as New Jersey’s official state reptile.

Riverside science teacher Mark Eastburn, who also testified, described his students’ hard work and perseverance in their campaign to encourage officials to protect the bog turtle.

“From their first letters to Senator Bateman, to the senator’s introduction of the first state reptile bill, and now to statewide activism between schools for bills in both the state Senate and General Assembly, this project has been a wonderfully enlightening opportunity for children to learn how their state government works,” Eastburn said.

“What impressed me the most was their perseverance,” he added. “They have now been working on this process for more than a year, with no sign of giving up until their favorite turtle is recognized as a state symbol.”

With a distinct orange patch on either side of its head and a brown to black shell, the bog turtle, found in 12 counties in the state, has been listed as an endangered species by the state of New Jersey and as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“You used to be able to find bog turtles almost anywhere in New Jersey, but habitat destruction has really taken its toll here,” Bateman said. “We have to act fast before bog turtles are gone from the Garden State forever.”

The senator continued, “I am very grateful to the students at Riverside Elementary and their teacher Mark Eastburn for inspiring me to become a fierce advocate for this unique and special creature. Together we will work hard to save New Jersey’s bog turtles from extinction.”

Bevan Jones, librarian at Community Park School (CPS), an equal partner with Riverside in the project, discussed the origins of the project in the CPS library.

“After learning about turtles through exploration and research in the library media center, it was wonderful to see a former Community Park student [Weiss] speak in front of the state government committee on March 26,” said Jones.

Eastburn noted that there would be additional testimony by students in the New Jersey General Assembly, followed by full votes in the Assembly and Senate. “I think the most important aspect of this project is learning by doing,” Eastburn said. “Students are becoming familiar with the functions of state government as this bill moves through the legislative process. They are also getting a valuable lesson in bipartisan cooperation, because the bills that are currently in the state Senate and the General Assembly have Republican and Democratic sponsors.”

He continued, “The children were thrilled to learn that their bill cleared the senate committee with the votes of two Republicans and three Democrats. It is a clear sign that we can still work together on an issue that children deem very important.”

The bog turtle hibernates from mid-September through mid-April, and is easiest to find in mid-April through June when it suns itself on matted vegetation. The proposed Senate bill notes that most other states have designated a state reptile, but New Jersey has not, “and promoting the bog turtle will encourage awareness of this creature and the preservation of its natural habitat.”