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It's time to help Northland turtles cross the road

Tuesday is World Turtle Day to draw attention to the plight of several species.

snapping turtle
A snapping turtle crosses Highway 169 near Ely. June is prime-time for turtles to be no the move. If you see a turtle on a roadway, try to protect it by slowing traffic or moving it off the road in the direction it was traveling. It's best not to handle snapping turtles, however, and instead try to use a stick to prod them off the road.
Bob King / 2010 file / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Hiding in their shells has helped turtles survive since the time of dinosaurs, but that defense doesn’t work well against fast-moving SUVs and trucks.

That’s why turtles need our help crossing the road, especially coming up in June when many of them will be on the move to mating and nesting areas and to move from wintering areas to summer waterways.

Soon, baby turtles will be out and about, too.

With Tuesday, May 23, designated World Turtle Day, turtle experts note that roadway mortality is believed to be a major factor in turtle population declines in the Northland and across the U.S. (Habitat loss and predation of turtle nests by raccoons, skunks and coyotes are other major problems.) And unlike most creatures in nature which can do just fine without us, turtles are one species that may now need a helping hand.

Some species — such as wood turtles and Blanding’s turtles — take 12-20 years to reach reproductive maturity, so the death of even one female turtle can take a big toll. That’s why both the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of natural resources are asking people to pick up most turtles they see on the road, move them in the direction they were headed, and place them safely off the road on the other side.


Report Blanding's and wood turtle sightings

Despite its threatened species status, Blanding's turtles are still seen fairly often in some areas of Minnesota. But fewer are hatching each year due to habitat loss, road mortality and, in some cases, illegal poaching to be sold as pets. Wood turtles are facing similar issues.

Both species remain protected throughout all of Minnesota and technically may not be handled or possessed without a special permit. It’s OK to help them cross a road. Do not bring the turtle into an automobile or place in a container, even temporarily.

Document your encounter for Blanding's and wood turtles with a couple of photographs, be sure to note the date and your location. Email or call your regional DNR nongame wildlife specialist. In Northeastern Minnesota that’s Gaea Crozier at gaea.crozier@state.mn.us or 218-328-8811. In Northwestern Minnesota it’s Amy Westmark at amy.westmark@state.mn.us or 218-308-2641.

How to help turtles cross the road:

  • Don't put yourself or others in danger. Pull off the road and turn on your hazard lights to alert other drivers to slow down. Check your surroundings and be careful of traffic.
  • Same direction! Always move turtles in the same direction they were traveling when encountered. Turtles should always be moved across roadways in as direct a line as possible. Do not take them to a nearby lake or pond, that may not be where they were going.
  • Handle turtles gently. If it's necessary to pick them up, all turtles except snappers and softshells should be grasped gently along the shell edge near the midpoint of the body. Warning: Many turtles empty their bladder when lifted off the ground, so be careful not to drop them if they should suddenly start peeing.
  • Be careful with snapping turtles and softshell turtles as they can bite. Grab an aggressive turtle by one rear leg while supporting the turtle from below with your other hand. Or you can encourage movement off the road with a twig or branch, broom, shovel or similar object to gently prod the animals along from behind. (If the turtle bites your prodding device it may hang on long enough to be pulled to safety.)
  • Document your find. Help wildlife experts document turtle crossing and mortality areas by participating in the Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally & Count Project. Go to herpmapper.org and register to file your findings. In Wisconsin report your turtle Report roadways where turtles are crossing or are dead on the road.
  • Build a nest cage to protect turtle eggs and later, hatchlings, if turtles are nesting on your property. Find instructions and a step-by-step video for a nest cage that allows hatchlings to exit but keeps predators like raccoons and skunks out.
  • In Wisconsin, report turtle mortality on road at wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles .

Minnesota tightens turtle rules

Minnesota lawmakers just changed regulations for "taking" turtles in the state, emphasizing that wild turtles can't be resold and that only some species can be kept for personal use. Current regulations can be found at dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/commercial/turtles.html .

Sources: Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin DNR.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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