When do the turtles cross the road? Now! Don’t run over them!

Decades ago, whenever I saw a snapping turtle alongside or in Blake Hill Road, I’d run over it, sometimes backing up to do it again. Snappers kill too many baby ducks to deserve life. That was my thinking at the time.

Eventually I got educated about the value of all wild critters, and stopped killing snappers. And then one night, I was able to achieve a bit of redemption.

trutle snapper BDNDriving home in the rain, approaching the bridge over Hopkins Stream in front of my house, I noticed a bunch of small turtles in the road. Emerging from the car, I discovered about a hundred tiny snapping turtles, apparently just hatched, and laying all over the road. Many had been run over and killed.

I searched through the lot of them and picked up the live ones, moving them to the grassy bank by the stream. It took quite a while. Actually, they were kind of cute.

Soon, Linda and I will see female snappers lumbering across the lawn, headed to her flower and vegetable gardens where they bury their eggs. We try to discourage this by picking them up (carefully!) and returning them to the sandy roadside where most of their kind lay their eggs. I don’t want to be rototilling them up!

This is the time of year, from May through July, when female turtles strike out to find nesting areas. They often cross roads – and get run over – presumably not deliberately. I know that telling you to slow down to watch for and avoid turtles is a waste of words, but I wish you would.

turtle crossing signIn the towns of Wells, South Berwick, and York, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy are making it a bit easier for drivers by installing road signs warning of endangered turtle road crossings. These are designed to reduce collisions for two of Maine’s rarest turtle species.

According to a press release from DIF&W’s Mark Latti, “Spotted and Blanding’s turtles, both protected under Maine’s Endangered Species Act, have seen much of their freshwater wetland habitat destroyed or degraded. Now, as human population densities and rates of development increase in southern Maine road mortality is becoming an ever-increasing threat.

“The turtle’s shell is its signature adaptation that has served to protect adults from most predators for millions of years; however it is no match for a car’s tire. Both Blanding’s and Spotted Turtles are extremely long-lived animals that take a minimum of 7 (Spotted) to 14 (Blanding’s) years to reach reproductive age. This coupled with low hatchling success places a premium on adult survivorship. In fact, recent population analyses of several freshwater turtle species indicate that as little as 2-3% additive annual mortality of adults is unsustainable, leading to local population extinction.

“Simply put, there is probably no group of organisms in Maine for which roads represent a more serious threat to long-term population viability than turtles, and no place more threatening than southern York County where road density and traffic volumes peak.”

Latti reported that a cooperative study by the University of Maine’s Wildlife Ecology Department and MDIFW has identified high-density rare turtle areas where road-crossing hotspots are located in southern Maine. Now, with the assistance of the Maine Department of Transportation, the Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Coalition, and local towns, state biologists are installing temporary yellow warning signs in strategic locations to alert motorists to the possible presence of turtles on the roadway. The signs will only be deployed seasonally, coinciding with the spring and summer period when overland turtle movements are greatest, thus helping to maximize the signs impact by reducing “sign fatigue” by local commuters.

And here’s where you come in. DIF&W requests that motorists encountering one of the roadside turtle signs reduce their speed and increase their vigilance for potential road-crossing turtles. Should a driver come across a turtle on the road and care to help, state biologists advise pulling over and moving the turtle to the side of the road it was headed, if it is safe to do so. If just a few rare turtles can be saved annually from a roadkill fate, it is believed the road signs will have contributed to the recovery of these declining species.

For more information about Maine’s turtles and work by MDIFW to survey and protect them, contact wildlife biologists Derek Yorks (Bangor research office, 207-941-4475), Phillip deMaynadier (Reptile-Amphibian-Invertebrate Group, 207-941-4239), or Scott Lindsay (Gray Region A office).

Funding for this project comes primarily from the Loon Conservation License Plate and donations to the state’s Chickadee Check-off. Additional research support was provided by the Maine Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Nature Conservancy, and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Please let me extend this invitation to slow down for turtles to all those traveling Mount Vernon’s Blake Hill Road and other hotspots for mother turtles. It’s the right thing to do.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.