By Darren Lum
You only need to have a heart to help.
With Haliburton County being among the last strongholds for turtles in this province, there is responsibility to everyone in the Highlands to preserve the turtle population today and for generations of tomorrow. The importance can’t be overstated for Turtle Guardians representative Leora Berman, who is passionate about helping all animals, particularly turtles.
“It is a responsibility to look after the species because this is the last footing in Ontario,” she said, referring to the Land Between – a bioregion that extends from the Georgian Bay Coast to the Ottawa Valley. “Also, the turtle is the foundation of our fish and wildlife. It is a foundational species. It is called a keystone species. It is a foundation of fish and wildlife and of different ecosystem services like water filtration and water supply, meaning if the turtle, which is holding up all these little food chains, if the turtle is at risk and its population is disappearing that means the rest of the fish and wildlife that depend on the turtle [for] their survival is very tenuous. So, if you work to save the turtle, you’ll also be saving lake trout, bass, moose, beavers, muskrats. If the turtle disappears, all those species suffer.”
She said this understanding is important for people, who have killed turtles purposely because they were taught that turtles are useless and pests. Berman points out the government used to have turtle culls.
“The Ministry of Natural Resources years ago used to have a turtle cull, so it was the ministry telling all the anglers and hunters this message and the government made a mistake,” she said, referring to the 1930s and 1940s.
The snapping turtle was included as a species of ‘Special Concern’ under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act in 2008, but up until 2017 they could be hunted legally. The snapping turtle requires upwards of 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Haliburton has a snapping turtle celebrity with Grace, the 125 year-old wonder.
Berman said her passion to help turtles started from divine intervention one day while returning home from work.
“When I was 16 coming back from waitressing in Dundas and Hamilton area there was an enormous snapping turtle in front of me, so I [stopped my car and] put on my flashers. A cop came up behind me – it must have been three in the morning [to see] what I was doing so I pointed at the turtle and he said, ‘oh.’ And then the next week the first turtle crossing sign in Hamilton/Dundas area went up, so that’s when I started,” she said.
Right now, turtles are just at the end of their nesting season, which is from June to the start of July. Many of the turtles typically seen crossing roads are females for the most part – at least 60 per cent. The balance are males going to feeding sites.
Anybody can be a turtle guardian, including children, who only need a parent or guardian’s permission, Berman said.
There are five levels of guardians you can be.
Level one guardians help to identify turtles and will receive education about turtles with turtle camp. Level two guardians help to monitor wetlands and provide turtle nest protection. Level three guardians conduct road research, turtle tunnels and conservation. Level four guardians volunteer for hours at Scales Nature Park or Turtle Guardians Headquarters while level five guardians perform triage and nest excavation, including helping conduct research and recover turtle populations.
Each level requires specific training to fulfill relevant duties with the goal of helping turtles. Training is provided by the Guardians.
In June, Berman said the greatest need was for nest sitters and road researchers, which are level two and three guardians. People can walk, cycle or drive sections of roads where turtles are known to cross, and where they often get hit, and patrol the roads and document where they are crossing.
Berman said from her work, “One of the most imperilled species in the world are turtles and the Land Between is one of the last three strongholds for turtles left in Ontario. It’s the last place where they have habitat and they are surviving. They would have been as prolific in southern Ontario as they are here now, but all their habitat is gone and they’ve been decimated.”
Turtles are ectotherms, meaning their survival depends on a warm body temperature, which is ensured by acquiring heat from the environment, and this includes snapping turtles and Blanding turtles. The range of turtles is dependent on this and as a result there are less turtles in northern Ontario, where temperatures are cooler.
Even if you’re not a guardian, helping turtles get across the road is always needed.
If you see a turtle on the road, Berman recommends using a car mat to safely move turtles off of the road.
“I like to use a car mat and sort of roll it in half and make it into a scoop and then scoop them off,” she said, likening it to a burrito. “You can either scoop them up that way or you can pull them by the back of the carapace or top shell on to the car mat and hold the back of them and pull the car mat and the turtle to get them off the road.”
She adds it’s important to move the turtle in the direction they were headed when you found them.
“If a turtle is nesting, it will go back to the wetlands rather than across the road,” she said.
One of the most common mistakes for people looking to help turtles include lifting a turtle by its tail
Lifting a turtle by its tail will dislocate its spine and can permanently harm a turtle, who won’t survive in the wild with those injuries.
For all the conservation efforts, there are some people who want to purposely harm turtles.
“We know of people who deliberately run over turtles and that carries up to a $25,000 fine. The MNR conservation officer and us are concerned about that. MNR conservation officers are aware and so are we,” she said.
Contact the Turtle Guardians to become a guardian or to ask questions contact The Land Between charity – lead agency for the Turtle Guardians Program at (705) 457-1222 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Turtle Guardians and what they do, or how to volunteer, or donate see the website www.turtleguardians.com.
Anyone needing help with an injured turtle of critical care can contact the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre at (705) 741-5000.