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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

All eight turtle species indigenous to SWO at risk

Nature Needs:

Over the next few weeks, a mini series in the Essex Free Press will take a look at the status and needs of turtles, snakes, and amphibians indigenous to Southwestern Ontario and Point Pelee National Park.



by Sylene Argent & photos submitted by Point Pelee National Park.

All eight turtle species indigenous to Southwestern Ontario are listed as being at risk, as the Midland Painted turtle was just added to the list in May.

  As a result, all of the turtles at Point Pelee National Park are protected under the Species at Risk Act.

  The eight species of turtles, depending on their numbers, vary from endangered, to threatened, to of special concern.

  “We are now responsible for all the turtles, for their protection and recovery,” Tarra Degazio, Resource Management Officer at Point Pelee National Park, explained of the turtles who live at the site.

  COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, includes species specialists, who discuss the threats certain species are facing. It will decide and make a recommendation that a certain species has a high-risk. The Federal Government will take that recommendation and have its own consideration process.

  The most recent survey conducted at Point Pelee, to assess the health of the different turtle species at the local conservation site, was completed in 2001 and 2002, Degazio said. She added planning is underway to conduct a turtle population study within the next few years. “That way, we can reassess how turtles are doing in the park.”

  Turtles, Degazio said, take a long time to have the turnover to see if there are any changes occurring, based on anything conducted through the park, such as nest protection and juvenile recruitment. Staff, she said, protect nests to the stage where there are hatchlings that can be released. These efforts help recruit into the turtle population. Any changes, however, will not be noticed until years later, because it takes turtles so long to grow.

  It takes several years for turtle species to start reproducing. Some species do not mature until they are around six-years old, such as the Eastern Musk, which is one of the only species to breed that young. The other species of turtles do not reproduce until they are ten-years-old or more.

  “That is why it is so important for us to protect them,” she said.

Depending on the age of turtles, female Eastern Musk Turtles can have ten or fewer eggs, where a Snapping Turtle could have upwards of 60 eggs per season. As little as one-percent of hatchlings that emerge from the nest will make it to adulthood, due to loss of habitat and threats, such as vehicular traffic.

  When it comes to habitat, Point Pelee has started a marsh restoration process. Part of the work leading into the project, last season, was removing over a hectare of phragmites in areas of high concern for turtles and other marsh species. This was one way, Degazio said, to take care of old turtle nesting areas.

  Phragmites can become thick and make it difficult for turtles to move through. It can also affect incubation temperatures.

  Some of the cattails at Point Pelee, she added, are invasive, hybrid species. They have taken over some areas that used to be open water. It is hoped to recreate shallow-water habitats in those areas.

  Turtle nesting mounds have also been created at the park as a way to assist the turtles there. There were turtles using them, after the first year they were created, which was amazing to see, Degazio said.

  The Savannah Restoration over the past few years created open areas, which has been great for Blanding’s Turtles for nesting habitat. This species, she said, will travel kilometers to get to a good nesting spot.  

  The nesting mounds were put adjacent to the marsh, so turtles would not have to cross roads or go into parking lots to nest.

  When in the park, and a visitor notices a turtle on the road, she said ideally, they can make it across themselves, if they are not at risk. The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has a great video, outlining the proper and safe way to help a turtle cross the street if needed, if it is safe to do so.   

  In the Park, generally, visitors are encouraged to alert staff if a turtle is in need of help. Staff also use this opportunity to collect data. Those in the park needing to alert staff can call 519-322-2365. After hours, Jasper Dispatch should be called at 1-877-852-3100 if a species is in need of help. If a visitor moves a turtle, they are asked to alert staff. This helps map out hot spots.

  She said Point Pelee tries to work with the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre for turtles in need of rehabilitation. The park is always looking for volunteers to help transport injured turtles to the Centre. Those interested in volunteering are urged to Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre.

  Degazio said visitors can also record turtles seen outside the park through iNaturalist, even if it is deceased. Individuals completing projects use that information.

  When driving, key times to be on the lookout for turtles crossing the street are during nesting season, from late May and into July, and also into late summer and fall, when hatchlings leave their nests.

  Park staff did see a Red-eared Slider Turtle on the nesting mound this season and that is a non-native species. This means, someone released the turtle in the park at some point.

She was brought to Wings as a non-native species can not be in the park.

  Looking Southern Ontario-wide, John Urquhart, Ecologist and owner of Blazing Star Environmental, agreed the trend for turtle populations are going downward.

  He said turtles have a long-life expectancy. Naturally, very few turtles die, Urquhart said. The young, however, have very low success. Nest parasites and predators can threaten eggs and birds and other animals can threaten hatchlings.

  Adults are adapted to having little threats, due to their shells. In Ontario, adult mortality, because of humans ,have gone up a lot. This includes road mortalities and the draining of wetlands, he commented.

  Draining wetlands in the fall or winter, when they are hibernating, will likely have fatal effects on turtles, he noted. Draining wetlands in an area where little other similar areas exist can also be detrimental.

  Because turtles live so long, the decline is not easily visible. At the pond, they can still be seen. It takes a lot of work to measure the changes, which is something he does through his work. “It is a really challenging species to work with.”

  Urquhart noted the Painted Turtle is listed Federally, while the other seven species are listed Provincially.

  Through his work, Urquhart has noticed the number of wetland habitat areas, and how connected they are, are a big factor in supporting turtles. In Essex County, he said, this is the fundamental issue is turtles spend a lot of their time in wetlands. The other is being careful while driving to avoid hitting turtles while they are crossing the road.

  Many are finding creative solutions to help turtles get across the road, such as providing fencing and building better bridges over water, he said.

  Urquhart said Essex County - along the Detroit River and Lake Erie Shoreline - there are a lot of good habitat areas for turtles. The interior part of the County had a lot of wetlands, but much of that is now gone. On the flip-side, Essex County has a high diversity of turtles and species at risk snakes, due to the climate.

  As a result, he added, the habitats that remain tend to be loaded in rare species, including turtles and snakes.



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