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Turtle conservancies declare state of emergency in Ontario

By Paige Phillips,
Huntsville Forester,
August 2 2017

MUSKOKA – One of the world’s most ancient species is at risk.

In mid June, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre and The Land Between, declared a state of emergency for all turtles in the region. As of June 21, the conservation centre had received over 450 turtles, a number that had already surpassed the total number of turtles rehabilitated between May and October of 2016 with 370. That number has nearly doubled in just six weeks time, with the conservation centre reporting on its Facebook page July 26 that 700 turtles had been admitted to their hospital.

“Turtles clean our lakes and ponds; they eat all the dead and decaying matter at the bottom of the lakes and therefore without them bacteria counts would go through the roof,” said Leora Berman, chief manager and founder of The Land Between. ‘Of all turtles, snapping turtles are the best scavengers and vacuum clearness and in water are harmless and don’t snap. In fact, you could wave your hand in front of one or swim with one or even stand on a snapping turtle in a lake and they will simply hang out or swim away.”

There are eight species of turtles in Ontario, with seven of those calling Muskoka home. Six of those seven are turtles at risk; however, Berman noted that after this summer, the organization anticipates that the painted turtle may also be a species at risk. Ontario turtles include painted, snapping, map, stinkpot, blandings, wood and spotted.

“If this continues, turtle populations that are already at risk will not have a hope of rebounding at all,” said Berman.

Species at risk program co-ordinator, Glenda Clayton, with the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve, said multiple issues, including habitat loss and road mortality, threaten turtles. Clayton noted that female turtles are most at risk from our roadways.

“In early summer, female turtles move onto land to find a warm, dry place to lay their eggs,” said Clayton. “It is during this critical time that they often encounter roads. It is a huge loss when an adult female is killed on the road. Only a few turtles survive to reach adulthood which, in our northern climate, is usually a minimum of 20 year years.”

Clayton added that researched have found that the loss of just one to two per cent of adults each year from the “extra” road mortality will eventually lead to the disappearance of the local population.

Berman said that only one per cent of eggs laid will reach adulthood.

“This translates into a turtle needing to reach 25 years in age to reach maturity and lay enough eggs to have one successful offspring,” said Berman. “Therefore when one turtle is killed the remaining female now has to live to 35 years, two turtles have to live for 45 years, etc. So the effect of road mortality on turtles in hurting populations exponentially and for years into the future.”

Both organizations agree that one way people can help turtles is to pay close attention while driving, especially when travelling near wetlands, lakes or rivers.

“Simply slow down and be attentive,” said Clayton. “If you see a turtle on the road, consider stopping and moving it to the shoulder in the direction it was heading.”

Clayton advises to always keep safety in mind.

“Keeping a pair of work gloves and a shovel or paddle in your car can help you move the turtle off the road quickly and safely,” said Clayton.

Clayton advises these top five ways to help an injured turtle if you think it might be rehabilitated.

1)Recording the location of where you find the turtle. This is important for both identifying road mortality hot spots and returning the rehabilitated turtle to its home.
2)Carefully remove the turtle from the road, being aware of any possible injuries. Handle the turtle as little as possible.
3)Place the turtle in a clean container for transport and cover the turtle’s head with a clean damp piece of cloth to calm it (T-shirt, towel, clean rag, etc.)
4)Do not offer the turtle food or water
5)Take the turtle to the nearest wildlife rehabilitation centre or veterinary clinic. Call beforehand to be sure they will accept the animal.

“As you travel our roads this summer, please slow down and take the time to admire the scenery and wildlife,” said Clayton. “And if you see a turtle trying to cross the road, please give her and her future offspring a “brake.””

Another way that people can help the turtle population is to become a Turtle Guardian. The program, of which Berman is the co-ordinator, helps to conserve turtles and turtle habitats. Those who become guardians help to increase survival of turtle eggs by receiving and installing protective cages with safe exit points on nest sites. They also help to conserve turtle populations by learning to identify, monitor and report turtle sightings and habitat features to then apply conservation and stewardship measures on their property.

Volunteers are provided with education and support through workshops, presentations, online resources and access to project field experts.

Anyone is able to become a guardian. The cost is $25. More information can be found at: turtleguardians.com.

“Through Turtle Guardians, we are partnered with the Toronto Zoo and Ontario Nature to collect information on turtle location to help put in underpass sites, crossing signs and to monitor population health,” said Berman.

Turtle Guardians has also partnered with the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre through the Tunnels and Trauma Campaign to assist in turtle rehabilitation and to assess which road sites can be a candidate for underpasses.

The organizations aim to install over 500 underpasses in the region with about 50 of those slated for Muskoka in the next two to three years, if successful.

If you find an injured turtle you can call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre at 705-741-5000. You can also visit the website for information on how to handle turtles, including snapping turtles at ontarioturtle.ca. Turtle sightings can also be submitted to the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve at gbbr.ca. This information is shared with Ontario’s Natural Heritage Information Centre and helps to verify species range and mortality hot spots. More information about The Land Between can be found at: www.thelandbetween.ca.

by Paige Phillips
Paige Phillips is a reporter with the Huntsville Forester. She can be reached at pphillips@metrolandnorthmedia.com . Follow her on Twitter and Facebook