Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Snapping Turtle crossing the road. © Heather Kaarakka

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.
© Heather Kaarakka

April 2014

Wisconsin turtle populations at a crossing

How the public is helping them find a safe path to protection.

Karely Mendez

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.

Until now.

Use caution on crossing guard duty

If you see a turtle crossing the road, take caution when pulling over and again when reentering the roadway. Before dashing into the street make sure there are no cars coming. Use extreme caution if the road has blind corners or is on a busier stretch of roadway. Once you determine it is safe, carefully, but quickly, move the turtle off the street. Help the turtle cross by putting it on the side they were facing and walking toward.

Badje warns that "spiny softshells and snapping turtles do bite and it's best to use good judgment when ushering these species across roads." He advises to use "long objects for them to bite down on such as sticks" then to gently drag them across the road.

If you pick up a turtle and move it, especially young turtles, wash your hands well after handling.

Hidden throughout the rivers, wetlands and uplands of Wisconsin are 11 turtle species:


Softshell turtles (2)

  • Smooth softshell (Apalone mutica)
  • Spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Mud and musk turtles (1)

  • Eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Snapping turtles (1)

  • Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Semi–aquatic pond and marsh turtles (7)

  • Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)
  • False map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica)
  • Northern map turtle (Graptemys geographica)
  • Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)
  • Ouachita map turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis)
  • Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)
  • Wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)

Email your questions about the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program to DNRHerptiles@wisconsin.gov .

To learn more about turtles and see a video on the program, visit http://wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles/.

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

  • The ornate box turtle is four to five inches long on average.
  • It has a hand painted look to it; has eye–catching yellow dashes, bars and spots on its dark brown or black carapace (upper shell).
  • The limbs and head of the turtles can also be spotted.
  • A characteristic that distinguishes ornate box turtles from all other box turtles is that their plastron (lower shell) is dark brown with radiating yellow lines.
  • In Wisconsin, this species is limited to the south central and southwestern part of the state, located primarily in areas with deep sand deposits, dry prairies or oak savannas.
  • They prefer places where temperatures are higher and soils are drier.
  • In the winter, these turtles require deep sandy soil to burrow into for overwintering.
  • In the summer, to avoid excessively warm temperatures, they prefer oak savannas and the edges of oak woods.

What do ornate box turtles eat?

  • They are omnivorous; they eat a variety of animal and plant foods found in their environment.
  • Beetles, grasshoppers, berries and prickly pear cactus are among the things they eat.
  • They do not need water often because of their efficient system for metabolizing liquid from the plants and animals they eat.

Why are ornate box turtles listed as an endangered species?

  • Humans have played a major role in the ornate box turtles' population decline.
  • The numbers of deaths due to automobiles running turtles over and human pet collection are extremely high.
  • These turtles have also been affected by road construction and other human development.

What can I do to help ornate box turtles?

  • You can help them most by not taking them as pets and by leaving them in their natural habitat.
  • Educate yourself about this endangered species and its habitat.
  • Stop for turtles on the road or help them cross if it's safe to do so.
  • Help a citizen–based conservation program like the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program.
  • Help restore native prairies that turtles use. For more information visit dnr.wi.gov and search "ornate box turtle."
Four–legged turtle trackers

Turtle dog picking up a turtle. Submitted By John Rucke
John Rucker’s "turtle dogs" are adept at finding turtles and gentle when they pick one up.
Submitted By John Rucker

One June day in 1999, John Rucker went for a walk near his home in North Carolina with his dog, a Boykin spaniel named Buster.

"While on the walk, Buster spontaneously picked up a turtle and brought it to me," says Rucker.

Buster was a trained bird dog, but had no turtle training. Rucker attributes the spontaneous event that day to the fact that he pointed out an Eastern box turtle to Buster once before.

"I pointed it out and he [Buster] thought I was interested in it and brought the first one. After that I encouraged him to find them, and he did," says Rucker.

As a result of Buster's unique interest in turtles, Rucker got a second Boykin spaniel to train and has been training dogs since. Boykin spaniels do not discriminate among turtle species, "they can find any turtle…they all smell the same to the dogs," says Rucker.

Rucker's dogs can find turtles in a fraction of the time it would take humans to find them. They have helped many organizations, including the Department of Natural Resources, find turtles like the ornate box turtle for research and conservation efforts.

In fact, Rucker is a pioneer behind turtle–finding dogs.

Not every dog can be trained to find turtles, says Rucker. He believes that retriever breed dogs could be trained to find turtles, but emphasizes that the dogs "have to have the right breeding and inclination to pick things up."

Rucker's Boykin spaniels are good turtle–finding dogs because they are gentler with turtles and they have never seriously injured a turtle. Rucker says he is not aware of anyone else training dogs to find turtles. The method he uses to train his dogs is to take them out all summer long as puppies and work with them to find turtles.

"Hopefully at the end of the summer they are really good at it," he explains. Rucker adds that once the dogs know what they are doing they don't need a refresher.

"If they got it that summer, then they got it for good," he assures. Although turtle finding can be fun, Rucker does not encourage people to do this on their own.

He cautions that people could start using dogs to find turtles for illegal trade.

"I think turtles should be left in the wild," says Rucker.

Additionally, if someone uses the wrong breed of dog, the dog could actually injure a turtle, and thus defeat the purpose of finding turtles in order to protect them. And in places like Wisconsin, some turtles are endangered and should be left alone.

"I do not encourage or want people to do this on their own," Rucker says. "I only use this to research and to help turtles."

Rucker is passionate about using his trained dogs to help find turtles, and to help facilitate research and conservation efforts for organizations like the Department of Natural Resources.

"We are trying to protect the remaining turtles that Wisconsin has and we are trying to find and help the last breeding populations," adds Rucker.

Visit turtledogs.org for more information.

Karely Mendez is a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and former editorial intern with Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.