Shell shock: Ontario’s turtle emergency

Seven of Ontario’s eight turtle species are at risk. The population in the province has taken a heavy blow this summer, but these reptiles can find refuge in Ducks Unlimited Canada projects.

A Blanding's turtle spotted at DUC's Carp River project in Ottawa. ©Susan Prior

“More of Ontario’s turtles are on the move due to habitat loss around urban areas,” says Lauren Rae, national conservation biologist for DUC. “The sandy shoulders found on roads and highways provide the ideal nesting conditions many turtle species are looking for.”

It’s on these roadways that many turtles are being killed or injured. According to Ontario Turtle Conservation, their “turtle hospital” has taken in nearly a thousand injured turtles this year — twice the number reported in 2016. Turtle shells are crushed to pieces by vehicles, and the hospital is literally taping them back together so they can have a chance at healing.

“These slow-moving reptiles have been in the evolutionary game for more than 220 million years, but they are also slow to reproduce,” says Rae. “Some turtle species live to be 80 years old, and it may take up to 20 years for some to reach sexual maturity. This year’s impact on Ontario populations could have dire results in the long-term.”

Many Ontarians are now aware of their province’s turtle emergency. When safe to do so, people can help a turtle cross the road in the direction the reptile is heading. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has also constructed turtle underpasses in new road developments.

Despite the travel help, the primary issue for Ontario turtles is habitat loss. DUC’s habitat restoration work is be a part of the solution and the Carp River project in Ottawa is a leading example.

“Three years ago, DUC restored four wetlands on the Carp River,” says Mark Gloutney, DUC’s director of regional operations. “The City of Ottawa and the federal government provided funding to enhance habitat for the threatened Blanding’s turtles, including a specially designed nesting area. This turtle feature is the first of its kind for DUC.”

This summer, the ponds have attracted the desired patrons: a Blanding’s turtle was spotted on the property by the landowner, Susan Prior.

“It’s very exciting, because this was the at-risk turtle species the nesting area was made for,” says Prior. “It’s too early to tell if the resident turtle will create a family this year, but the very appearance of the turtle is a positive sign.”

“At DUC, our work benefits many species beyond ducks,” says Gloutney. “We take pride in helping at-risk species. We offer habitat restoration and mitigation solutions to municipalities, private landowners, and other potential partners who want to add value to their property or help people connect with nature.”

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