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?
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“