This Small Town in Canada Spent 10 Years and $2.7 Million to Save Turtles

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One of Rick Levick’s earliest memories is seeing two smooshed snapping turtles along a causeway that cuts through this at-risk reptile’s wetland habitat, Lake Erie’s Long Point peninsula in southern Ontario, where he’s been cottaging since 1956.

In 2006, he helped launch a fight to save these critters-and after ten long years, it’s a stunning success in protecting animals and their habitats, one that came from the grassroots.

The Long Point Causeway, which allows tourists and cottagers access to Lake Erie’s famous sandy beaches, was constructed in the 1920s. Surveys performed by the Canadian Wildlife Service indicate that, since 1979, there have been years where about 10,000 animals were killed by cars zooming along this 3.6 kilometre (two-mile) stretch of road. It’s right on the border of the Big Creek National Wildlife Area, which is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

“This whole project came together when some concerned citizens called a meeting and presented the problem to a group representing all kinds of different community organizations and government agencies,” Levick told Motherboard in a phone call.

“‘We’ve been running over turtles for years,so why bother?’ That’s probably what they said before the buffalo disappeared.”

That was the beginning of a remarkable effort described in a study published today in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. The paper, by McMaster University biologist Chantel Markle, shows that road mortality of endangered reptiles has gone down 89 percent after fencing and culverts (dug-out tunnels that allow the turtles access to the sandy beaches where they lay their eggs) were installed along the Long Point Causeway. The final culvert was installed this January.

“It was a problem we were all aware of. If you lived in the Long Point area and if you were a cottager like myself, you’ve seen turtles killed on the road for years,” said Levick. Between the years 2008 and 2010, 6,000 meters of fencing was installed along the roadway.

The area is home to many threatened and endangered creatures, like the Blanding’s turtle, the ribbonsnake, and the snapping turtle. These critters don’t just face threat from road mortality: it’s illegal to harm, collect, buy, or sell them. The team who built the tunnels and fences to protect these animals have even kept many specifics under wraps, to avoid tipping off potential poachers. This has been successful so far, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“We did have some opposition,” said Levick. “It was people very skeptical that we could do anything that said: ‘Well we’ve been running over turtles for years, and they’re still here, so why bother?’ Of course, that’s probably what they said just before the buffalo disappeared.”

Other residents were worried about the cost of the project, which ended up being about $2.7 million spread out over ten years. But Levick and his group found creative ways to fund the effort, with grants from Environment Canada and the US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. An illustrated children’s book by a local resident, called Never Give Up, has also helped raise funds. Only a small portion of the cost came from local coffers.

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These turtles can live for up to 90 years, so it’s hard to quantify right now exactly how much the population has bounced back. But the average number of turtles heading onto the road is down by 89 percent, and snakes are down by 28 percent.

Markle hopes that these techniques can be brought into other areas that threaten local wildlife. She told me the trial and error that this one community went through-a decade of effort, and a price tag of $2.7 million-can save others similar time and effort in the future.

The study also helped discover “how best to monitor this type of work,” Markle explained. “How many years you should be doing it for? What type of equipment to monitor the culverts with?”

Markle sees the Long Point project as a sort of citizen science that gets results. The community embraced the efforts, reaching out the to the research team when they observed turtles on their yard and properties. “It was a really great opportunity to meet the local people as well as the tourists who are coming in and enjoying the trails, and checking out the park and the marsh,” she explained. “We would get to talk to them and share our work on a day-to-day, person-to-person basis, which was amazing.”

Now, with all this work, there’s a lot more harmony between the human and animal residents of Long Point peninsula, a harmony that can be shared with others.

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