Living on the Lake: Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program
A female turtle emerges from the murky depths of its lake home, breaking its long winter hibernation under a layer of mud. She seeks the warm rays of the sun and once the temperature and the amount of daylight is just right, the turtle will come away from its watery home and travel across yards, fields and roads to just the right patch of sand. Then the creature will slowly scoop out a hole, deposit its eggs, and gently cover up the nest. Hopefully, the clutch hatches.
But there’s a lot that can go wrong between the time a female turtle decides to find a nest and her brood emerges from its underground hatchery. Canines, skunks, raccoons and other creatures find the eggs tasty treats and habitat destruction is a concern for many turtles that require woodlands and unique habitats to survive. And one of the most common fatalities for these creatures is at the hand of man, particularly automobiles. All too often, especially during egg-laying season, the sight of a flattened turtle on the road is all too common.
But a new citizen-based conservation effort has been started by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this year and it will not only bring awareness to the plight of the 11 species of turtles that live in this state, but also determine ways to help these creatures find places to nest safely.
“Road mortality is a major factor in the decline of many of our turtle species,” says Andrew Badje, a conservation biologist with the DNR. “We encourage everyone to slow down when they drive by rivers and wetlands, especially during late May and into July when these creatures lay their eggs. They are often seen crossing roads to get to their nesting spots.”
Most species of turtles that make Wisconsin their home live in or around water, except the ornate box turtle that enjoys woodlands and forests. This species is one of only two types of turtles that are terrestrial in the entire United States. The other 10 species, including the soft, smooth, and spiny soft shell turtles, the Eastern musk, snapping, Blandings, false map, Northern map, Ouachita map, painted and wood turtles, all require some kind of wetland or waterway to survive.
Perhaps the most common turtle in the Northwoods is the painted turtle. It’s not an uncommon sight to see an army of them, laid out across a big log on the shore of a lake during a hot summer day. They love basking in the sun, and in fact need heat to survive, as turtles are cold-blooded reptiles.
While the painted turtle is common in this part of Wisconsin, it is a fascinating creature. They love slow-moving water and lakes, and are distributed from southern Canada to Louisiana to northern Mexico. Female turtles, as a rule, are larger than their male counterparts. Painted turtles mate in the spring and autumn months. Male turtles can become sexually mature from the ages of 2 to 9 years and females mature from ages 6 to 16. They can live in the wild up to 55 years.
Another common turtle species seen in this area is the snapping turtle. It is a very prehistoric-looking creature with its bumpy, leathery neck, beaked face and long claws. And it has a distinctly grumpy disposition. These creatures can live to be about 40 years old in the wild and they eat a wide range of food, including plants, insects, worms, fish, frogs, snakes, crayfish, small mammals and even carrion.
Snappers mate from April into November and lay their eggs in June and July. A female snapping turtle can hold sperm for several seasons within her body and releases it as her eggs form. Snapping turtles are sexually mature when their shell, or carapace, is about 8 inches across. They lay between 20 to 40 ping-pong ball-size eggs. Eggs can take nine to 18 weeks to incubate and they can even survive through the winter to hatch in the spring when conditions are just right.
One interesting aspect about these particular turtles is that the sex of a baby snapping turtle is dependent on the temperatures they incubate in. If the eggs incubate in temperatures at around 68 degrees, the turtles will be females. Temperatures between 70 to 72 degrees produce both male and female turtles, and temperatures at 73 to 75 degrees produce only males.
Snappers will travel great distances from their watery homes to find just the right conditions for a nest. This puts them at great risk for being hit by automobiles. They are also vulnerable when they are in the process of laying eggs, particularly if their chosen spot is the sandy and gravelly shoulder of a road.
Unfortunately, seeing a squashed and mangled turtle on a road can be all too common during their reproductive cycles. And that’s exactly what the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program is hoping to minimize in the upcoming years. Part of this initiative is to get citizens to report turtle sightings, dead or alive, to this conservation organization.
“We would like motorists and other citizens to record road crossing observations online through the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation program,” says Badje. “They can also access turtle crossing forms online and fill them out and mail them to the DNR.”
The data will be used to determine where turtles most frequently cross roads and this information will be distributed to towns, utility companies, county entities and even the Department of Transportation, especially when road projects are being considered. “Once we get enough information about turtle crossings, we can mark these areas with turtle stencils on the road,” says Badje. “We were thinking about signs, but we have found they are targets of vandals and people frequently steal them.”
Another reason why Badje hopes citizens will take the project to heart is because he would like to get some baseline numbers on not only turtle crossing areas throughout the state but fatalities as well, so researchers can better monitor turtle numbers in the years to come. “We can also use this data to develop ways to make turtles crossing the roads safer,” he says. “In Massachusetts, they have a system where they put up a fence along a popular turtle crossing that directed turtles to a culvert where they could crawl under a road instead of over it, reducing their chances of getting killed by a vehicle.”
Motorists can also help these creatures survive. Provided it is safe to do so, a driver can pull over and help a turtle when they see one traveling on a road. The best way is to gently push the creature toward the direction it’s headed with a snow shovel. Never pick up a turtle by its tail, especially a snapper, because it can cause vertebrae damage to the animal in addition to putting the rescuer in danger of being bitten. Another suggested method is to have the turtle bite on a stick and then gently pull it onto the side of the road.
Badje hopes the newly formed Turtle Conservation Program will not only provide valuable data on turtle numbers, but also help people become involved in their survival in a hands-on way. “Perhaps if people become more educated about these creatures and become involved in the conservation program, they may watch out more carefully for them, especially on the road,” says Badje. “Turtles are an interesting part of the landscape and deserve our respect and efforts in preserving their numbers.”
For more information about the Turtle Conservation Program or to download a form, check out the website at http://wiatri.net/inventory/WiTurtles. To get a copy of the form to record a turtle death or sighting, write to: Wisconsin DNR, Attn-E-6, Turtle Conservation Program, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.
Mary Ann Doyle is the associate editor of the Star Journal.