By Kurt Krueger
A SMALL painted turtle was just crossing to my side of the centerline when I drove past and, with little traffic on the road, my first thought was to let it continue the course on its own. But a half-mile later, when one car passed going in the opposite direction, I decided to go back and help that turtle get safely across the road. No other cars had passed me going in my direction. Imagine my shock and anger upon getting back to the spot, only to find that the turtle had been crushed by a car tire about three feet from where I had seen it last — in the same lane. Did that lone car really cross the centerline to take out a turtle?
The lowly turtles of Wisconsin aren’t faring well these days, impacted by development-forced habitat changes, high predator numbers, poachers and careless motorists.
While we can’t do much in a hurry about shoreline development and predator populations, there’s a chance that increased public awareness on the plight of turtles might do something to curb poaching and roadkills.
Each year from late May through June, turtles leave the water, traverse back roads and major highways to reach their favorite nesting site and face an ever-increasing number of vehicles along the way.
Bob Hay, amphibian and reptile biologist with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said highway mortality continues to pose a major threat to native turtle populations that have been dwindling in recent years.
He said road mortality is particularly significant for two rare and threatened species, the Blanding’s turtle and the wood turtle. But even the more common species, such as painted turtles and snappers, can experience heavy mortality on some roads and highways.
Motorists can help by being alert during June for turtles crossing roads in search of places to lay eggs — and by refusing to be part of the careless, cruel minority who find it fun or sporting to hit those turtles, as one study found.
There is a turtle season in Wisconsin for some species, but it is closed in spring and early summer when female turtles are most vulnerable. Turtles cross roads because roads often separate the aquatic habitat where turtles spend most of their lives from the well-drained upland habitats where female turtles deposit their eggs.
Females that survive from one year to the next often select the same location to nest. Hay said if they are forced to cross roads, eventually the odds of making it across safely catch up with many of them.
“If you see a turtle on the road — and only if it’s safe to do so — carefully pull over and help the turtle to the side of the road it is facing,” said Hay, who stressed that people should never put themselves or other drivers at risk when stopping.
When helping aggressive turtles, such as snapping turtles, across the road, he said the safest way to avoid being bitten is to gently drag it across the road by its tail, leaving the front feet on the pavement. It may help to use a stick that the turtle can bite, allowing one to grab the tail more safely.
“Every turtle we save increases the chance of maintaining already dwindling turtle populations — especially since most of the turtles killed on roads during nesting season are mature females,” he said.
Five of Wisconsin’s 12 turtle species are experiencing significant population declines. The only endangered species, the ornate box turtle, is found in southern Wisconsin. But the wood turtle, a threatened species, is found in the northern half of the state.
Turtles are up against tough odds even without highway mortality. Hay says that as few as 5% of eggs laid survive to hatch and, of those, only one in 100 may survive to reproductive age. Turtle predators include raccoons, red fox, skunks, opossums, herons, egrets, seagulls, cranes and crows.
A biologist in Maine pointed out that turtles have a very limited ability to rebound from any increase above natural mortality levels. Unlike mammals and birds, the trick to maintaining turtle populations is high adult survivorship. They can live for decades. But their long lifespan also means that they reproduce late in life, sometimes taking 15 to 25 years to mature.
As with every creature, turtles are an important component in nature’s balance. They are scavengers of sorts but also dine on fish, insects and other aquatic organisms.
Biologists say turtles are part of the food chain. Adult turtles eat a lot of bugs, insects, larvae and other things people might consider to be pest species. On the flip side, turtle eggs and newly hatched turtles provide food for predators.
John Kowalsky, a Sevenmile Lake homeowner and former zookeeper of freshwater fish at the Milwaukee County Zoo & Aquarium, said everything has a niche in nature.
“Even mosquitoes are a vital component of the environment. Their larvae is one of the mainstays for freshly hatched fish — a very important part of the food chain,” he said.
Kowalsky said a Michigan study shed light on a disturbing trend involving motorists and turtles — that many people were purposely running them over as some sort of perverted sport. He said the study, by a UW-Michigan graduate, used rubber turtles on roads and to the sides of roads, most on the gravel.
He said turtle poaching is another issue. Anyone who observes people picking up turtles during their protected season should contact the DNR hotline at 1-(800) TIP-WDNR (847-9367).
The scribbler’s strongest turtle memories are from decades ago when, as a kid in central Wisconsin, I got a close-up look at an endangered box turtle my brother found.
And once, when fishing for bluegills in a washout below a millpond dam, while standing on large boulders that were placed to prevent erosion, my worm was grabbed by what looked like a giant snapping turtle. It was huge! Suffice it to say that the fight, with hook and line, was over before it started.
Turtles have always been a good photo subject as they sun themselves on logs, out of the water, lined up like a bunch of army helmets.
The bottom line is that the lowly turtles need our help to survive so that they will be around, and enjoyed, by future generations.