What do turtles and avid golfers have in common? They both love to hang out at golf courses.

But while the number of avid golfers isn’t on the rise in an industry that has shed players the past few years, the number of turtles living on golf courses, particularly in ponds, may be growing. That’s according to the study, “Do Ponds on Golf Courses Provide Suitable Habitat for Wetland-Dependent Animals in Suburban Areas? An Assessment of Turtle Abundances,” which appeared earlier this year in the Journal of Herpetology. The study was conducted by Steve Price, biology research coordinator at Davidson University, from May 2004 through 2012. Price is now a professor at the University of Kentucky.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s “Wildlife Links” program financed the study, which took place in and around Charlotte, N.C. Two of the primary golf courses that participated in the study were Northstone Country Club in Huntersville, N.C., and River Run Country Club in Davidson, N.C.

Price discovered that golf course ponds provide an important habitat for turtles, in some cases a better habitat than ponds on farms or in parks.

“I think golf courses have a lot to offer for wildlife, especially in urban and suburban areas,” Price said. “There’s not a lot of habitat left in urban and suburban areas.”

The study’s results are good news for the golf industry, which has been trying to educate the public about its environmental prowess the past several years to dispute the stereotype that golf courses are a dumping ground for pesticides and fertilizers.

The fact that the study’s results were published in a story in the July edition of National Geographic magazine is a boon for the industry’s environmental standing.

Study proves a point

In the study, scientists compared turtle populations in golf course ponds with ponds located in residential and farm areas. They examined the relationship between turtle population and residential land cover within individual golf courses.

“Several factors of golf course and farm ponds may promote semiaquatic turtle abundance,” the study says. “Characteristics include large expanses of open-canopy habitat for nesting, connectivity of habitat patches which may lead to successful dispersal among ponds and, in the case of golf courses, numerous ponds to inhabit.”

According to the study, differences in pond attributes, specifically nutrient levels, may be responsible for differences in populations, because this leads to greater aquatic plant growth, which is a food source for both sliders and painted turtles.

The study cited a report from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) that most golf courses are composed of more than 70 percent out-of-play areas (rough) that may serve to buffer aquatic habitats from surrounding suburban environments or provide diverse habitats for a variety of organisms.

Darrin Spierings, the certified golf course superintendent for Northstone Country Club in Huntersville, N.C., says the study proves the point that turtles can live on golf courses.

“Golf courses can provide a great natural habitat for animals in any urban area,” says Spierings, who has been at the course for 16 years.

There are several ponds and streams on Northstone, including a 22-acre irrigation lake. The turtles like to sun themselves along the banks of the water bodies. They also lay their eggs in areas on the course. Spierings notes that maintenance staff workers will “work around” the turtles if they spot them on the course.

“The turtles are just there – we don’t do anything to them or for them,” Spierings says. “We don’t bother them.”

Northstone features 55 acres of Meyer zoysiagrass on fairways and tees, which doesn’t require as many inputs as other turfgrass varieties, Spierings says.

“It’s a pretty dense grass,” he adds. “We don’t apply many pesticides to it. We also apply no more than 2 pounds of nitrogen [annually] and low amounts of phosphorus and potassium. The turf is very low maintenance.”

Spierings and his crew mow to the edge of water bodies and hand trim the edges every two weeks. They do not use herbicides in the water bodies to control vegetation.

“It’s definitely good for us,” Spierings says of the study. “It disputes the stereotypical attitude [that we’re overloading turfgrass] with inputs. … The reality is so much different.”

Price’s study also states: “If golf courses are to be considered reserves to local biodiversity, promotion of naturalistic golf courses (i.e., those with minimal design and low housing density) should be considered as a more preferable option than courses associated with real estate development.”

Price says turtle populations were negatively affected on courses with greater residential development within their boundaries, and they may not provide the same benefits to turtle populations as golf courses that have minimal development within their boundaries.

The study found that the negative impact on turtle population occurred on courses with more than 30 percent of residential development within course boundaries.

“The more roads and houses integrated within a golf course, the fewer turtles we found,” Price says.

Price plans to continue his research of turtles on golf courses, including a study on their survival.

The study also tells where turtles nest on golf courses, which is not on greens, fairways or bunkers, Price says.

“They picked out small landscaped areas on the golf course, where perennials or annuals were planted,” he explains. “Turtles also like to nest on open sunny areas, and there are plenty of those on golf courses.”

Not just managing turf

Greg Lyman, director of environmental programs for the GCSAA, says the study proves that superintendents do more than just manage turfgrass on golf courses; they also manage for environmental preservation.

“What the study illuminates is that there’s more to golf courses than just the playable surfaces,” Lyman says. “Superintendents, by reflex, know their playable areas … down to the square footage. That’s what they traverse every day. But they manage the entire property.”

The study also speaks well of golf courses acting as filtration systems for runoff in urban areas, Lyman adds.

“Golf courses can provide a valuable service for stormwater management for the larger watershed concerns in such areas,” Lyman says.

Tim Hiers, the certified golf course superintendent at Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Fla., who is well known for his environmental practices, isn’t surprised by the study’s results. But Hiers notes the study is a win for the golf course industry, which is often criticized by environmentalists.

“Animals don’t realize political boundaries,” Hiers says, noting that animals only seek food, water, cover and space. “They don’t know that it’s a golf course, and they don’t know that it’s not a golf course.”

Hiers is skeptical of some scientists and their studies, so he was thankful that Price didn’t have a predisposed opinion about what he would find. Old Collier, incidentally, is home to several turtle species, including the gopher tortoise, which is a protected species.

“There are good scientists, and there are those scientists who just have an agenda,” Hiers says.

Price says there have been a lot of questions historically about the use of pesticides and how they may impact the environment, including water.

“For a long time, scientists like myself weren’t conducting research on golf courses,” he says. “So the only thing that people had to go by were what their perceptions were, which aren’t always reality.”

Price plans to continue his research with turtles on golf courses.

“One thing we’re looking at is turtle survival,” he says. “Do turtles have the same chance living from one year to the next on a golf course as they do on a farm pond?”

Hiers, who has been a superintendent for 37 years, says the number of superintendents who are “environmentally productive” has “increased dramatically” in the past 15 years. But the golf industry needs to do a better job of touting the positive things it has done environmentally, Hiers stressed.

“There are environmental activists, but golf course superintendents are active environmentalists,” he said.

Turf Talk: We love wildlife on our courses, but…