Painted turtle

It is “turtle crossing the road time” and we all need to drive with extra caution around wetlands, ponds, and rivers to avoid killing them.

Why do turtles cross the road? The answer, of course, “to get to the other side.” While that is true, the reasons are much more complex than that.

This is the time of year when we commonly see turtles crossing roads to find a good spot to lay their eggs. They also cross roads to find a mate and to sometimes disperse to new habitats. In the process of crossing roads, many turtles are killed by vehicles, especially when roads pass near wetlands, ponds and rivers. We need to take extra precaution while driving through those areas to avoid killing turtles.

Getting run over by cars is a leading cause of decline in turtle numbers in Wisconsin. Most of Wisconsin’s 11 turtle species breed in spring, laying their eggs in nests dug on higher ground. They often cross roads to reach their upland nesting areas preferring sandy, gravely ground. Predation of turtle nests by raccoons, skunks and coyotes is another significant mortality factor; once turtles lay their eggs they do not return, leaving the eggs and later hatchlings vulnerable.

We need to save each individual turtle if we can. Making it into adulthood is a miracle because most eggs and hatchlings get eaten by predators. For turtle populations to thrive, turtles must live a long time and lay many eggs, so at least a few make it to reproductive age ensuring the survival of the species.

What can we do to save turtles crossing a road? First, stay safe and never put yourself in danger. Second, let the turtle cross the road if it can do so safely. If you do decide to help a turtle cross the road, don’t take it back from where it was coming from; it’ll try to cross again. If you must move the turtle to safety, lift it by the back of its shell — never by the tail. Release it on the other side of the road in the direction it was traveling. And don’t move it to an entirely new area it is not familiar with as it may roam around aimlessly or try to return to its home base.

Caution is required when handling snapping and softshell turtles as they can be defensive and will likely try to bite you. It is best to use a long stick or other long-handled object to push the turtle along, if it is necessary to move it out of harm’s way.

Here is how you can help the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ biologists are asking the public to report turtle crossings online at http://wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles/ where you can also see a short video on how to build a protective cage around turtle nests to protect them from predation.

DNR staff and local advocates use the collected road crossing information when working with local and state highway departments to address deadly turtle road crossings to make them safer for turtles and motorists. During new road construction, it is helpful to avoid wetlands and other major turtle crossing areas when possible. If not possible, installing culverts and fences to guide turtles to and through culverts, so they can safely cross under roads to get to the other side should be considered in road planning.

More information on Wisconsin turtles can be found at this website: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/herps.asp?mode=table&group=Turtles.

Nicholls can be reached at nicho002@umn.edu.