Slow Down

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From Jane’s World

My fascination with turtles started as a child when my family lived near what we called “Mud Lake.” Its real name was Kelly Lake, but it was full of mud, weeds, yuck, and everything kids like—including turtles!

The day I brought Murdle home, my tolerant dad set up a steel tub with water and a rock. Eventually we discovered Murdle was a girl, because she had laid eggs. Trying to be helpful, I took her eggs to a sandy area behind our house and buried them for her. When my dad found out, and none of her eggs ever hatched, he had me release Murdle back near the lake. The lesson: leave animals where you find them unless you’re positive they need your help.

Murdle was a painted turtle. I loved her reddish-orange bottom, dark green shell, long claws, and yellow stripes. Painted turtles are my favorites and are also the most common turtle found in Wisconsin. 

Maybe my fascination with turtles has to do with how they easily carry their home on their back. I do this whenever I go backpacking. I also hike about as slowly as a turtle. I’m not in a hurry. By my rules, the last one out of the woods wins.

I do wish turtles would move faster when crossing the road though. I worry about their safety—and I’m not the only one who does. 

The Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program (WTCP) is a citizen-based monitoring program run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). One of their goals is to discover areas in Wisconsin where turtles have a high mortality rate due to crossing roads. They encourage people to help migrating turtles cross safely. 

Before pulling over for a turtle make sure there aren't any cars directly behind you. Put on your turn signal and park your car off the road. Gently pick the turtle up and carry it carefully in the direction it was headed, then set it down off the road. 

At the WTCP website you can document any turtles you help and /or see. Citizens’ reports of turtle crossings have helped the DNR identify high mortality rate areas. In central Wisconsin, state transportation officials and UW–Stevens Point worked to install and monitor an underpass where there was a high percentage of turtles being killed by motorists. At that site, they estimate the turtle mortality has decreased by 85 percent. 

Saving even one adult female turtle has a huge impact on the turtle population. It can take Blanding’s turtles and wood turtles 12 to 20 years to reach the reproductive state. 

Braking to help turtles cross the road is a seasonal event for both Dane and me. Dane’s job often has him traveling highways and back roads, near creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes. So far this year he’s helped eight turtles safely across the road. Most of them were painted turtles. He has also seen Blanding’s turtles, box turtles, and snappers. 

Snappers can bite, so it’s best to try to get them to move by walking behind them, nudging them to get to the other side of the road. If this doesn’t work, please do not pick them up by their tail. The snapper’s tail is connected to its spine and you may cause more damage than help.

Instead, grab the back of the turtle's shell and pick him up and carry him across. If he is too big and heavy, grab the back of his shell, turn him, drag him backwards across the road, and turn him again when you get to the other side to leave him in the direction he was going. I like using a car mat to do this. Simply pick up the snapper by the back of her shell and set her on the mat. Drag the mat and turtle across the road and leave her headed in the direction she was going.

It pains me to see squished turtles in the road. If you’re paying attention it’s not difficult to avoid hitting them. They certainly won’t throw themselves into your car like some crazy squirrels have been known to do.

Last Sunday, after hiking with the pups, I spotted a turtle trying to cross Hay Valley Road. I pulled over and noticed it was a Blanding’s turtle. Blanding’s turtle are easily identified by there domed shell with yellow markings, and the brilliant yellow under their neck. I spoke gently as I bent to pick it up: “Hello, turtle, would you like a little help crossing the road?” With my hands securely on its shell, I lifted it up—and it peed what seemed like a bucket of urine on me.

I’m sure the turtle was thankful for the lift across the street but just didn’t know how to show it.

For more information on turtles and reporting them, please go to http://wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles/.

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Originally Published June 27th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout