In Wisconsin, every year from mid–May to early July female turtles, such as this snapping turtle, leave their aquatic habitats for dry upland
nesting grounds to deposit their eggs. Many of these seasonal expeditions require treacherous passages over roads more than once.
Wisconsin turtle populations at a crossing
How the public is helping them find a safe path to protection.
Turtles are ancient creatures, so ancient that they predate dinosaurs. They've survived the mass extinction of other species. They've been slowly trekking to and from their nesting sites for thousands of years without human help.
Unfortunately, turtle populations today are declining. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), reports 75 percent of all turtle species in the world are threatened, endangered or critically endangered.
The main threat to turtles in Wisconsin is habitat fragmentation. In some areas, predators such as raccoons and skunks are the culprits when they raid turtle nests. Other threats include pollution, disease, and exploitation for use in global food markets and pet trades.
In Wisconsin, road mortality is a major cause of the decline in local turtle populations. Traffic on even lightly travelled roads causes significant road mortality of adult turtles.
To reverse the trend and assist turtles in making safe crossings, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program. Key to the program's success are the volunteers who identify the deadliest roads for turtles and educate drivers to slow down and look out for turtles, especially from April to October when they are most active. Volunteers also have a large influence on local governments and road maintenance agencies, and getting them to install turtle road crossing signs and make road crossings safer for both humans and turtles, says Andrew Badje, a DNR conservation biologist.
From late May to early July, female turtles migrate to upland areas to nest. In too many instances, they have to cross roads to lay eggs in suitable habitat.
Volunteer assistance can be as easy as observing and reporting live turtle road crossings and road crossing mortalities, turtle nesting areas and local population occurrences. "This data can be used to determine ideal places to construct wildlife friendly underpasses, place turtle crossing signs to warn motorists, or they can be used to improve knowledge of species distribution and migration across Wisconsin," explains Badje.
Badje adds that reaching out to public and private road maintenance agencies, such as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation that fix and build roads is a good start to implement these measures.
"It can make a huge difference, but it is not going to be an overnight fix," says Badje.
Although there are other reasons in Wisconsin for the decline of turtle populations, such as loss of habitat and illegal pet trade, road mortality is something volunteers can help significantly reduce.
"It takes people who care to make this work. And there are a lot of people who care," says Badje.
The Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program depends on citizens reporting where and when they see turtles and making sure that all their data is being submitted to the Department of Natural Resources. Citizen monitors can go online to record turtle crossing points (wiatri.net/inventory/WIturtles), or they can print out the online form (Road Crossing Mortality and Turtle Sighting Form) and mail it in with their recorded observations.
Badje says the goal is to identify all turtle nesting or crossing "hotspots" in the state, regardless of whether or not turtles are being killed there.
Badje also says that reporting — or even better, photographing — turtle crossing points or even just turtles in ponds is important.
"It's important because it gives the DNR extra knowledge on the whereabouts of rare and common species and the types of habitats they are using," explains Badje.
Wisconsin has 11 species of turtles and Badje explains that any kind of turtle should be reported because they are all important.
Of the 11 species of turtles in Wisconsin, one is endangered (ornate box turtle), one is threatened (wood turtle), and three are of special concern (Blanding's turtle, smooth softshell turtle and false map turtle).
And so, the age–old question, "Why did the turtle cross the road?" may finally be answered: because someone cared enough to make sure that they could safely make it to the other side.
If you want to be that someone, consider taking part in The Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program.
An introduction to the endangered ornate box turtle
How do I identify an ornate box turtle
What do ornate box turtles eat?
Why are ornate box turtles listed as an endangered species?
What can I do to help ornate box turtles?
Karely Mendez is a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and former editorial intern with Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.