Eyes on the Fu­ture

With seven of Canada’s eight species of na­tive fresh­wa­ter tur­tles in a race against ex­tinc­tion, will sci­en­tists, plan­ners, wildlife man­agers and vets — to­gether with thou­sands of vol­un­teers and sup­port­ers — be able to keep pace?

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Brian Banks Pho­tos by Dave Coul­son

With seven of Canada’s eight species of na­tive fresh­wa­ter tur­tles in a race against ex­tinc­tion, will sci­en­tists, plan­ners, wildlife man­agers and vets — to­gether with thou­sands of vol­un­teers and sup­port­ers — be able to keep pace? PLUS: What you can do

Most signs of spring — buds on the trees, birds on the wing, bare arms un­der the sun — are happy and up­lift­ing. Then there is the ring­ing of the tele­phone hot­line in the On­tario Tur­tle Con­ser­va­tion Cen­tre in Peter­bor­ough, Ont. The calls typ­i­cally start in April, says vet­eri­nar­ian Sue Carstairs, the cen­tre’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and med­i­cal di­rec­tor of its tur­tle hospi­tal. “It re­ally gets busy in May, and then in June it peaks be­cause that’s usu­ally the nest­ing sea­son. At that time, we have some­one on the hot­line 12 hours a day, seven days a week, tak­ing calls from across the prov­ince.”

Fresh­wa­ter tur­tles hi­ber­nate at the bot­tom of lakes, ponds and rivers. When spring ar­rives and the weather warms, they re­turn to the sur­face and start to move — to find their mates, re­lo­cate to sum­mer ter­ri­tory and, for fe­males, to lay eggs. So nearly every call to the hot­line (save for non-ur­gent calls from ed­u­ca­tors) has the same grim mean­ing: some­one is re­port­ing an­other of those tur­tles in trou­ble. Nine times out of 10, they’ve been run over by cars while cross­ing roads or high­ways. Col­li­sions with boats, dog at­tacks and other mishaps round out the list. Last year, be­tween April 1 and Oc­to­ber 31, the hot­line rang 10,000 times, and the cen­tre ad­mit­ted 920 tur­tles for emer­gency med­i­cal care, re­pair and re­hab.

There’s no other fa­cil­ity like it in Canada. Yet the story it tells of tur­tles be­ing in­jured and killed as a re­sult of con­flicts with peo­ple and de­vel­op­ment in their core habi­tat is all too com­mon. All but one of the coun­try’s eight species of na­tive fresh­wa­ter tur­tles are listed ei­ther as en­dan­gered, threat­ened or of spe­cial con­cern un­der the fed­eral Species at Risk Act, says James Pagé, species at risk and bio­di­ver­sity pro­gram of­fi­cer at the Cana­dian Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion. “It’s been an on­go­ing trend for quite a while.”

Be­sides road mor­tal­ity, the other main fac­tors driv­ing down tur­tle pop­u­la­tions are habi­tat loss, nest pre­da­tion and poach­ing. The com­mon thread: peo­ple. For the most part, tur­tles in­habit the same re­gions of the coun­try — warmer, wet­ter south­ern ar­eas close to the U.S. bor­der — that early set­tlers and the bulk of the pop­u­la­tion since have drained, farmed and paved with cities and roads. As if that weren’t enough, an­i­mals such as rac­coons, coy­otes and, in some cases, rats, which thrive in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, are the ones most likely to raid tur­tle nests, eat­ing the eggs and hatch­lings. In the face of these chal­lenges, tur­tles — slow mov­ing, nat­u­rally long-lived and slow to ma­ture and re­pro­duce — don’t stand much of a chance.

Not with­out help, that is. And therein lies the good news side of the tur­tle story. Know­ing why these rep­tiles — which have walked the Earth for more than 200 mil­lion years — are in free fall also means know­ing what sort of re­search, pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion mea­sures are needed to stop and, ide­ally, re­verse the de­cline. And to­day, in many places across the coun­try, sci­en­tists, plan­ners, wildlife man­agers and vets like Sue Carstairs are de­liv­er­ing just that — while re­ly­ing on the en­gage­ment, sup­port and vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions of large num­bers of ci­ti­zens at many stages in the process.

“When you work on tur­tles, you’ve got to think long term.”

Tom Her­man is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in bi­ol­ogy at Aca­dia Univer­sity and chair­man of the board of Mersey Tobeatic Re­search In­sti­tute, just out­side Ke­jimku­jik Na­tional Park in south­west­ern Nova Sco­tia. The rugged wet­lands in and around “Keji” are home to four known sub­pop­u­la­tions of Bland­ing’s tur­tle, one of Canada’s most en­dan­gered tur­tle species. While the lat­est of those groups was dis­cov­ered only in 2016, re­search on the sub­set in­side the park dates from 1969, mak­ing it one of the long­est-stud­ied tur­tle pop­u­la­tions in Canada.

Key el­e­ments of this re­search in­clude mark­ing tur­tles so they can be iden­ti­fied if they are found again, or fit­ting them with harm­less, small ra­dio trans­mit­ters so they can be tracked and lo­cated later in the field. Ra­dio track­ing yields in­sights into growth and sur­vival rates, move­ments and pre­ferred habi­tats. In most cases, when re­searchers fol­low mon­i­tored an­i­mals, they

find them with other un­marked tur­tles as well. “We have tur­tles that were marked as adults in 1969-70, fe­male tur­tles [thought to be] 30-year-old adults then, that are still nest­ing every year,” says Her­man, who also co-chairs the prov­ince’s Bland­ing’s tur­tle re­cov­ery team. “Those tur­tles are well into their 70s, pos­si­bly older.”

While Bland­ing’s life­spans are on the high end for Canada’s tur­tles, every species lives at least 25 years on av­er­age, and most ex­ceed 50. Like­wise, tur­tles are slow to ma­ture: only the eastern musk tur­tle, painted tur­tles and male map tur­tles are ready to breed be­fore age 10; Bland­ing’s don’t ma­ture un­til their 20s, snap­ping tur­tles in their late teens (or later), with the rest some­where in be­tween. Along with their late ma­tu­rity, the mor­tal­ity rate for tur­tles at the egg stage and as hatch­lings is ex­tremely high, notes David Se­burn, fresh­wa­ter tur­tle spe­cial­ist with CWF. “Typ­i­cally, one egg in a hun­dred — or even a thou­sand — wins the lot­tery and be­comes an adult,” he says. “To bal­ance the equa­tion, tur­tles are very long-lived.” That all works fine un­til the mor­tal­ity rate of adult tur­tles starts in­creas­ing be­cause of col­li­sions with cars and when the al­ready high mor­tal­ity rate of eggs and hatch­lings goes up even fur­ther be­cause of in­creased pre­da­tion. Then, says Se­burn, “it’s a whammy from both ends.”

While fed­eral and provin­cial re­cov­ery strate­gies and stew­ard­ship plans for at-risk tur­tles ad­dress these con­cerns, provin­cial sci­en­tists, univer­sity re­searchers, com­mu­nity groups and other NGOS do most of the ac­tual on-the-ground con­ser­va­tion work. As a re­sult, in­di­vid­ual pro­grams dif­fer in scale, scope and fo­cus from place to place.

In most cir­cum­stances, the big­gest bang for the con­ser­va­tion buck lies in mea­sures that pro­tect and ex­tend the life­span of fer­tile, adult fe­males — tur­tles that have al­ready won the sur­vival lot­tery. “If you can keep her alive, she’s go­ing to lay more eggs, year after year,” says Se­burn. The corol­lary is that the slow re­place­ment rate of tur­tles means that the death of even one re­pro­duc­tive fe­male can se­verely af­fect the health of a lo­cal tur­tle pop­u­la­tion.

Carstairs says this re­al­ity is what makes her cen­tre’s work sav­ing, re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing and re­leas­ing in­jured tur­tles so re­ward­ing. “Every adult is vi­tal,” she says. “We’ve ac­tu­ally shown by com­puter mod­el­ling that any amount of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is go­ing to help the pop­u­la­tion and help pre­vent ex­tinc­tion. That’s why I was at­tracted to this project, be­cause of the pop­u­la­tion-level im­pact that you can have.”

Of course, an even bet­ter sce­nario, she says, would be to pre­vent col­li­sions from hap­pen­ing in the first place and “put the hospi­tal out of busi­ness.” Male and fe­male tur­tles both suf­fer as road­kill, but fe­males can face greater risk be­cause they are prone to build­ing their nests and lay­ing

their eggs in the dirt and gravel shoul­ders next to the pave­ment. In ei­ther case, the so­lu­tion lies in more “per­me­able” road de­sign and the science of road ecol­ogy — not a new field, ex­actly, but one that’s cur­rently gain­ing pro­file and sup­port from plan­ners, road builders and the pub­lic. Where tur­tles are present, this sim­ply means in­cor­po­rat­ing cross­ing struc­tures, such as cul­verts and other “eco-pas­sages,” into any road con­struc­tion or re­pair, and cou­pling that with fenc­ing — on both new and ex­ist­ing roads where drainage cul­verts al­ready ex­ist — to guide tur­tles to­ward the cul­verts and pre­vent them from cross­ing over the pave­ment.

Ob­vi­ously, it isn’t fea­si­ble or cost-ef­fec­tive to in­stall eco-pas­sages on every road­way. But nei­ther is it nec­es­sary. In­stead, the fo­cus of work in this area is di­rected at iden­ti­fy­ing “hot spots” where col­li­sions are more fre­quent and even a mod­est amount of mit­i­ga­tion can save a lot of tur­tles.

Cur­rently, CWF is in­volved in two such pro­grams in On­tario — START (Sav­ing Tur­tles at Risk To­day) in the Muskoka­hal­ibur­ton-sim­coe area, run jointly with Scales Na­ture Park, and the Eastern On­tario Tur­tle Project, around greater Ot­tawa. In both cases, CWF con­ducts sur­veys iden­ti­fy­ing the types and num­bers of tur­tles killed on high­ways and the lo­ca­tions with the most col­li­sions. In 2017, it tal­lied 247 dead tur­tles in the Muskoka area (in­clud­ing 21 Bland­ing’s tur­tles) and 548 dead tur­tles around Ot­tawa (with 62 Bland­ing’s). It shares that data with lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and the provin­cial min­istries of trans­porta­tion and nat­u­ral re­sources, to demon­strate the need for fenc­ing and un­der­passes and to high­light where they’d be best de­ployed. In the Ot­tawa area, CWF’S Pagé says the prov­ince has been “very re­cep­tive, es­pe­cially on the hot spots with the high­est num­ber of Bland­ing’s tur­tles.”

Pub­lic in­put plays a big role in the START pro­gram. Scales Na­ture Park does a lot of com­mu­nity out­reach to raise aware­ness, and res­i­dents are urged to call a tur­tle hot­line if they find ei­ther in­jured adult tur­tles or new nest sites and nest­ing fe­males. Lo­cal vol­un­teers re­spond as needed. In­jured tur­tles are treated locally or, in some cases, taken to the On­tario Tur­tle Con­ser­va­tion Cen­tre in Peter­bor­ough.

Nests re­ceive dif­fer­ent but equally ur­gent at­ten­tion. As noted, pre­da­tion of eggs by rac­coons, skunks and coy­otes — a sig­nif­i­cant but man­age­able threat to tur­tle re­pro­duc­tion in “nor­mal” ecosys­tems — can be dev­as­tat­ing where preda­tor num­bers are “sub­si­dized” by ac­cess to garbage, field crops and other hu­man-as­so­ci­ated foods. “Typ­i­cally, a lot of the nest pre­da­tion hap­pens the first night after a fe­male lays her eggs,” says Se­burn. “It’s hard to know ex­actly what the rac­coons [and other an­i­mals] key in on, but quite of­ten the next morn­ing you’ll find a lot of those nests pre­dated.”

To pre­vent this, staff from Scales and CWF to­gether with lo­cal vol­un­teers try to get to the nests as soon as they’re re­ported. Then they cover them with wire and wood-frame cages that keep preda­tors out while

In On­tario, any con­firmed Bland­ing’s tur­tle sight­ing, liv­ing or dead, trig­gers a “habi­tat reg­u­la­tions” pro­vi­sion that pro­tects all wet­land habi­tat up to two kilo­me­tres away

al­low­ing the eggs to in­cu­bate and hatch. In lo­ca­tions where cages aren’t fea­si­ble, the eggs are col­lected and in­cu­bated ar­ti­fi­cially, and the hatch­lings are later re­leased back into the wild. In 2017, thanks to this pro­gram, 700 new nests were recorded, and Scales re­leased more than 4,500 hatch­lings.

Other con­ser­va­tion ef­forts take a more struc­tured ap­proach to nest mon­i­tor­ing and pro­tec­tion. In Que­bec’s Riche­lieu River val­ley, for ex­am­ple, where there is a pop­u­la­tion of en­dan­gered spiny soft­shell tur­tles, nests face the added threat of flood­ing due to chang­ing wa­ter lev­els. To help, a joint team from the Granby Zoo and Wildlife Preser­va­tion Canada lo­cates nests, cre­ates new bask­ing and nest­ing sites on higher ground and, if nec­es­sary, col­lects eggs for in­cu­ba­tion back at the zoo, where they en­joy an 81 per cent hatch­ing suc­cess rate, com­pared with 28 per cent in the wild.

Far­ther east, vol­un­teers sup­port­ing the Mersey Tobeatic Re­search In­sti­tute’s work with Bland­ing’s tur­tles in and around Ke­jimku­jik, along with those in­volved in the Clean An­napo­lis River Project’s wood tur­tle mon­i­tor­ing and stew­ard­ship pro­gram in the nearby An­napo­lis Val­ley, gather every evening dur­ing nest­ing sea­son in June and spend hours pa­trolling beaches, river­banks and other known sites on the look­out for nest­ing tur­tles. “Tur­tles usu­ally nest be­tween 8 and mid­night,” says the re­search in­sti­tute’s Her­man. “Once they start, it can take an hour or up to four, five or six.” As soon as the tur­tle cov­ers her eggs and leaves the nest, vol­un­teers in­stall a pro­tec­tive cover. Sites are mon­i­tored oc­ca­sion­ally dur­ing the sum­mer and then more care­fully come fall, when the young tur­tles hatch and the cov­ers must be re­moved for their re­lease. (Be­fore re­lease, the hatch­lings are weighed and marked with an ID code; some nest cage de­signs used else­where al­low hatch­lings to emerge on their own if weigh­ing and mark­ing isn’t part of the pro­gram.)

It’s a painstak­ing process that only suc­ceeds be­cause of the vol­un­teers’ tremen­dous com­mit­ment, says Katie Mclean, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and out­reach co­or­di­na­tor and species at risk project leader for the Clean An­napo­lis River Project. “It takes a lot of time to not nec­es­sar­ily see a lot of tur­tle nests.”

If fresh­wa­ter tur­tles are to have a vi­able fu­ture in Canada beyond this cen­tury, a con­tin­ued com­mit­ment to hands-on, labour-in­ten­sive, science-based con­ser­va­tion work seems es­sen­tial. Yet the mere fact that seven tur­tle species are listed un­der the Species at Risk Act and sim­i­lar provin­cial statutes of­fers some im­por­tant pro­tec­tions in its own right. In On­tario, for ex­am­ple, any con­firmed Bland­ing’s tur­tle sight­ing, liv­ing or dead, trig­gers habi­tat pro­tec­tions for wet­lands up to two kilo­me­tres from the tur­tle. “It’s es­sen­tially a wet­land habi­tat pro­tec­tion mech­a­nism,” says Pagé. “That doesn’t mean no de­vel­op­ment can hap­pen — small-scale op­er­a­tions, as long as you’re not al­ter­ing the wa­ter lev­els and the flow of the wet­land, are per­mit­ted. But any­thing larger may re­quire a per­mit from the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and Forestry.”

Sim­i­lar pro­vi­sions ap­ply in Nova Sco­tia, ac­cord­ing to Tom Her­man — you can’t harm listed species or their habi­tat di­rectly. But fed­eral acts are only en­force­able on Crown lands, he cau­tions, and at the end of the day, it’s al­ways go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to limit peo­ple’s ac­tions on pri­vate land. The same might also be said about poach­ers who cap­ture tur­tles for sale on the black mar­ket ei­ther as food or ex­otic pets. It’s il­le­gal, but hard to pre­vent with­out a high de­gree of en­force­ment.

For this rea­son, Her­man puts more stock — and finds the most hope — in pro­mot­ing pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, out­reach and en­gage­ment, with the ul­ti­mate goal of chang­ing the way peo­ple see and be­have around tur­tles and other wildlife. “Our whole re­search and re­cov­ery pro­gram has been largely driven by stu­dents and ci­ti­zens,” he says. In the past 12 years, they’ve tal­lied 100,000 hours of vol­un­teer time on species at risk. “They’ve taken own­er­ship of not just the pro­gram, but the species.

“All the leg­is­la­tion in the world can’t create that. And all the leg­is­la­tion in the world isn’t go­ing to save species at risk. It’s en­gage­ment by peo­ple who share the land­scape with the species and take own­er­ship and stew­ard­ship of those species — that is the key.”1

”Our whole re­search and re­cov­ery pro­gram has been driven by stu­dents and ci­ti­zens,“says Nova Sco­tia‘s Tom Her­man. ”They‘ve taken own­er­ship of the pro­gram — and the species“

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