By Zachary Roman
Every year from as early as May to as late as mid-July it’s turtle nestingseason in Ontario. And us humans have created the perfect nesting – orrelaxing – habitat for these threatened creatures: the side of the road. As a result of this road mortality is a leading cause of decliningturtle populations in the province.
“Usually we’re well into [nesting season] by now but that cold weather slowed the turtles down a bit. Sowe’re a couple of weeks behind” said Dr. Sue Carstairs executive andmedical director of the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre. “We’re juststarting to see the females out probably by mid-June they’ll be in full force out there.”
Leora Berman the founder and chief operatingofficer of The Land Between is seeing the same thing. “This time ofyear it’s predominantly females on roads because they’re nesting … ourgravel shoulders are the perfect [surface] for turtles” said Berman.“When a turtle nests in that site there’s quite a lot of nest fidelityso they will return to the same area to nest year after year. There arestudies that show that turtles nest close to where they were born aswell.”
The Land Between is a non-government organization that worksto conserve the “land between” bioregion which extends from theGeorgian Bay Coast to the Ottawa Valley and is the last intactwilderness in southern Ontario.
Nesting isn’t the only reason aturtle 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. “Theyrely on outside temperatures for their metabolism and their processestheir immune system and to digest food.”
One of The Land Between’sinitiatives is Turtle Guardians which aims to help conserve turtlesthrough citizen science road research crossing sign placement andunderpass construction. Around one-third of all Ontario’s turtles livein the “land between” bioregion making it one of the last strongholdsfor most species.
The Land Between works on turtle conservationefforts with Scales Nature Park who have the longest and largestfreshwater turtle research program in North America. “They are partnerson Turtle Guardians and we look at turtle populations and turtlehotspots for road crossing signs and underpasses” said Berman. “Turtlepopulations we know have declined by more than 50 per cent and likelyeven up to 70 per cent in areas in the last 20 years. There’s somescientists that have estimated if we lose 20 per cent of our snappingturtles in the next two years they will become extinct.”
Snappingturtles are some of the most misunderstood animals. Many people areafraid of them but don’t realize they don’t want to hurt you. “Snappingturtles have been proven to be extremely docile in water. You canactually swim next to them. Turtles are naturally curious and verygentle creatures. They only snap out of water in defense notoffensively” said Berman. “Nothing can consume as much dead matter andclean the bottom of a lake as best as a snapping turtle. But those arethe 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 ofdifferent turtles. And that’s really important because turtles takeapproximately 30 years to replace themselves. For one adult to have[one] successful offspring it has to be laying eggs for 30 years” saidBerman. “The adults that are on the roads are essential to keep thepopulation stable. So any turtle that’s hit on the road is it’s like abottle of beer off the wall you know that’s it … the population isforever reduced.”
Carstairs said that of the eight turtle species inOntario seven are now listed as at risk. The number one reason ishabitat loss and the number two is road mortality. Berman said themorning and evening are when turtles are usually most active andtherefore when you are most likely to find them on the roads. They alsoenjoy warm weather and thrive whenever conditions are wet. Howeverdrivers 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 preciousto the survival of the population.”
Unfortunately not all driversuse their turtle vision for good. Monika Melichar founder and directorof Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary has seen the consequences of thisfirsthand.
“We’ve received our second turtle [of the year] that hasbeen run over on the road … when it came in the gentleman who broughtit was actually almost in tears because he witnessed the car going outof its way to run this turtle over” said Melichar. “It is stillhappening out there. I don’t understand why what joy they get out ofhitting a turtle. But it was very obvious to him because the turtle wason the side of the road and the driver swerved to clip it.”
Melicharsaid the turtle who was hit a small painted turtle is pretty bangedup. But he is surviving and the sanctuary is optimistic that he willheal well. “There’s more people that are compassionate to turtles nowbecause the message is getting out. So people actually help I see it alot where people help them cross the road slow the traffic downwhatever they can do to prevent a turtle being run over” said Melichar. “Unfortunately there’s still some yahoos out there … I mean with thesnapping turtles it could be like 17 years before they reach sexualmaturity 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 recentyears 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 thatif anyone comes across an injured turtle they can give Woodlands a call.
Carstairs also thinks that situations where turtles are intentionally hit arebecoming increasingly uncommon thanks to efforts made from conservationgroups 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 theroot of the problem and start changing those thought patterns andbehaviours through education” said Carstairs. “I’ve seen all kinds ofpeople stopping to help turtles from young guys on dirtbikes to busdrivers to delivery trucks to the ‘average person’ that you’d expect tohelp. So I think the trend is more towards positive stewardship.”
Berman said that turtles are the irreplaceable foundation of our aquaticecosystems. “Our lakes or wetlands or rivers could not function wouldnot 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 aturtle you can report it to the Ministry of Natural Resources tip lineat 1-800-MNR-TIPS. There is a better chance of the perpetrator beingbrought to justice if you have dashcam evidence or the license plate of the offender. Intentionally hitting a turtle carries a maximum fine of$25000.
If you want to help a turtle across the road it isimportant to put your safety first. Both Berman and Carstairs suggestedthat 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 afterhandling a turtle. Due to COVID-19 many people have hand sanitizer onthem already which Carstairs said will do the trick.
“We don’t wantanyone 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 busyand people feel comfortable pulling over putting your flashers on ifyou have a bright orange vest to wear that’s great to help the turtleacross the road in the direction that it’s going” said Carstairs. “Italways has to be in the direction that they’re going. Then that’swonderful because you’ve probably saved their life.”
Helping theturtle in the direction it was already going is especially importantbecause moving a turtle from its territory can be the same as killingit. Turtles have imprinted their territories and cannot make mind mapsof new territories. “If you move them away from their territory theywon’t know where to hibernate. They won’t know where to seed. They willbe extremely distressed” said Berman. “They have to stay where theylive.”
Turtle Guardians has an app that people can download and useto report turtle sightings. It is just one of the many ways you can getinvolved in turtle conservation with The Land Between’s five-levelcitizen science program that can turn you into a real turtle researcher.
The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has a hotline – 705-741-5000 – thatyou can call from eight a.m. to eight p.m. seven days a week to reportan 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 theprovince. They are always looking for more volunteers to help in anyposition.
“You can make a population impact with a relatively fewnumber of turtles … you can actually help at a population level rather than an individual level” said Carstairs. “And every person that doesone positive thing for an adult turtle is doing something positive notjust for that individual [but] the entire population. So that’s prettypowerful.”