Road mortality threatens turtle populations
By Zachary Roman
Every year, from as early as May to as late as mid-July, it’s turtle nesting season in Ontario. And us humans have created the perfect nesting – or relaxing – habitat for these threatened creatures: the side of the road. As a result of this, road mortality is a leading cause of declining turtle populations in the province.
“Usually we’re well into [nesting season] by now but that cold weather slowed the turtles down a bit. So we’re a couple of weeks behind,” said Dr. Sue Carstairs, executive and medical director of the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre. “We’re just starting to see the females out, probably by mid-June they’ll be in full force out there.”
Leora Berman, the founder and chief operating officer of The Land Between, is seeing the same thing. “This time of year, it’s predominantly females on roads because they’re nesting … our gravel shoulders are the perfect [surface] for turtles,” said Berman. “When a turtle nests in that site there’s quite a lot of nest fidelity, so they will return to the same area to nest year after year. There are studies that show that turtles nest close to where they were born as well.”
The Land Between is a non-government organization that works
to conserve the “land between” bioregion, which extends from the
Georgian Bay Coast to the Ottawa Valley and is the last intact
wilderness in southern Ontario.
Nesting isn’t the only reason a turtle could be on the road. “Sometimes turtles are on the roads just to bask, or they’re just stopped and they’re having a little break because the road is nice and hot, and they’re exothermic,” said Berman. “They rely on outside temperatures for their metabolism and their processes, their immune system and to digest food.”
One of The Land Between’s
initiatives is Turtle Guardians, which aims to help conserve turtles
through citizen science, road research, crossing sign placement and
underpass construction. Around one-third of all Ontario’s turtles live
in the “land between” bioregion, making it one of the last strongholds
for most species.
The Land Between works on turtle conservation efforts with Scales Nature Park, who have the longest and largest freshwater turtle research program in North America. “They are partners on Turtle Guardians and we look at turtle populations and turtle hotspots for road crossing signs and underpasses,” said Berman. “Turtle populations, we know have declined by more than 50 per cent and likely even up to 70 per cent in areas in the last 20 years. There’s some scientists that have estimated if we lose 20 per cent of our snapping turtles in the next two years, they will become extinct.”
turtles are some of the most misunderstood animals. Many people are
afraid of them but don’t realize they don’t want to hurt you. “Snapping
turtles have been proven to be extremely docile in water. You can
actually swim next to them. Turtles are naturally curious and very
gentle creatures. They only snap out of water in defense, not
offensively,” said Berman. “Nothing can consume as much dead matter and
clean the bottom of a lake as best as a snapping turtle. But those are
the ones that most people are afraid of.”
“We have the highest turtle diversity in Ontario … we’ve got a lot of turtles and a lot of different turtles. And that’s really important because turtles take approximately 30 years to replace themselves. For one adult to have [one] successful offspring it has to be laying eggs for 30 years,” said Berman. “The adults that are on the roads are essential to keep the population stable. So any turtle that’s hit on the road, is it’s like a bottle of beer off the wall you know, that’s it … the population is forever reduced.”
Carstairs said that of the eight turtle species in
Ontario, seven are now listed as at risk. The number one reason is
habitat loss and the number two is road mortality. Berman said the
morning and evening are when turtles are usually most active and
therefore when you are most likely to find them on the roads. They also
enjoy warm weather and thrive whenever conditions are wet. However,
drivers should stay on the lookout for turtles at all times.
“What we try to do is alert all the drivers to watch out and especially the kids in the back to put on ‘turtle vision’ and keep their eyes wide open and look far ahead,” said Berman. “Because every adult turtle is precious to the survival of the population.”
Unfortunately, not all drivers
use their turtle vision for good. Monika Melichar, founder and director
of Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary, has seen the consequences of this
“We’ve received our second turtle [of the year] that has been run over on the road … when it came in, the gentleman who brought it was actually almost in tears because he witnessed the car going out of its way to run this turtle over,” said Melichar. “It is still happening out there. I don’t understand why, what joy they get out of hitting a turtle. But it was very obvious to him because the turtle was on the side of the road and the driver swerved to clip it.”
Melichar said the turtle who was hit, a small painted turtle, is pretty banged up. But he is surviving and the sanctuary is optimistic that he will heal well. “There’s more people that are compassionate to turtles now because the message is getting out. So people actually help, I see it a lot where people help them cross the road, slow the traffic down, whatever they can do to prevent a turtle being run over,” said Melichar. “Unfortunately there’s still some yahoos out there … I mean with the snapping turtles it could be like 17 years before they reach sexual maturity enough to lay eggs. That’s a long time for them to have to live with cars and yahoos to be able to reproduce.”
It is only in recent years that Woodlands has become set up to care for turtles. But now that they are, Melichar said they definitely want to do their part and that if anyone comes across an injured turtle they can give Woodlands a call.
Carstairs also thinks that situations where turtles are intentionally hit are becoming increasingly uncommon thanks to efforts made from conservation groups to educate the public on the importance of turtles. “That is very much the exception, but it does still exist … we need to get at the root of the problem and start changing those thought patterns and behaviours through education,” said Carstairs. “I’ve seen all kinds of people stopping to help turtles, from young guys on dirtbikes to bus drivers to delivery trucks to the ‘average person’ that you’d expect to help. So I think the trend is more towards positive stewardship.”
said that turtles are the irreplaceable foundation of our aquatic
ecosystems. “Our lakes or wetlands or rivers could not function, would
not have any fish, would not have any biodiversity without turtles,”
said Berman. “Anything that requires water to survive needs a turtle.”
According to Berman, if you see someone who went out of their way to hit a turtle, you can report it to the Ministry of Natural Resources tip line at 1-800-MNR-TIPS. There is a better chance of the perpetrator being brought to justice if you have dashcam evidence, or the license plate of the offender. Intentionally hitting a turtle carries a maximum fine of $25,000.
If you want to help a turtle across the road, it is
important to put your safety first. Both Berman and Carstairs suggested
that people see their organization’s websites – turtleguardians.com and ontarioturtle.ca respectively – for detailed instructions on how to handle a turtle, even a snapping turtle, safely.
One of the most important things you can do is wash your hands after handling a turtle. Due to COVID-19, many people have hand sanitizer on them already, which Carstairs said will do the trick.
“We don’t want anyone getting injured themselves trying to help a turtle, as much as we adore turtles. But if it’s safe to do so, if the road isn’t too busy and people feel comfortable, pulling over, putting your flashers on, if you have a bright orange vest to wear, that’s great to help the turtle across the road in the direction that it’s going,” said Carstairs. “It always has to be in the direction that they’re going. Then that’s wonderful because you’ve probably saved their life.”
turtle in the direction it was already going is especially important
because moving a turtle from its territory can be the same as killing
it. Turtles have imprinted their territories and cannot make mind maps
of new territories. “If you move them away from their territory, they
won’t know where to hibernate. They won’t know where to seed. They will
be extremely distressed,” said Berman. “They have to stay where they
Turtle Guardians has an app that people can download and use to report turtle sightings. It is just one of the many ways you can get involved in turtle conservation with The Land Between’s five-level citizen science program that can turn you into a real turtle researcher.
The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has a hotline – 705-741-5000 – that you can call from eight a.m. to eight p.m. seven days a week to report an injured turtle or even just to ask for advice. They have a network of almost 700 volunteers who help get turtles to them from across the province. They are always looking for more volunteers to help in any position.
“You can make a population impact with a relatively few number of turtles ... you can actually help at a population level rather than an individual level,” said Carstairs. “And every person that does one positive thing for an adult turtle is doing something positive, not just for that individual [but] the entire population. So that’s pretty powerful.”