The smiling face of the Blanding’s turtle must seem to wind developers like a gloating grin.
In 2013, the endangered reptile’s presence halted a major wind turbine project in Prince Edward County. The nomadic turtle travels several kilometres to breed, and wind farm construction was deemed potentially harmful, since it would’ve exposed the animal to increased road traffic.
Score a win for the Blanding’s turtle — a rare event for the tiny reptile, which already faces constant threats from cars and trucks zipping by. It is currently listed as threatened, and without greater conservation efforts, the turtle could soon be endangered.
Old turtles, in particular, are precious. It takes 25 years for female Blanding’s turtles to reach maturity, at which point they’re able to lay eggs — and even then, they lay just three to 19 every two or three years. When the turtles hatch, their soft baby shells make them vulnerable to predators.
Yet even turtles that manage to avoid predation when they are young risk becoming roadkill before they can lay eggs of their own.
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“It’s really vulnerable to road mortality because it moves long distances throughout the year,” says Christina Davy, a researcher with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry who specializes in the Blanding’s turtle. “That works really well until the landscape’s fragmented with roads … Wherever the turtles are going, they have a high chance of having to cross the roads. The problem really is that simple.”
But finding a viable solution to it is not. “The challenge we have in Ontario right now is that we have high biodiversity in the south and we also have a large number of people. The biodiversity needs high-quality habitat, and the people need the things that people need,” Davy says. “That includes energy.”
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Wildlife tunnels that pass under roads, combined with fencing to keep turtles from crossing at-grade, could reduce mortality rates. The approach has been effective in some provincial parks, helping turtles, rabbits, and snakes cross roads safely: a project in Killbear Provincial Park has saved more than a few massasauga rattlesnakes, and Pinery and Presqu’ile provincial parks have installed eco-passages too.
Recent road construction projects have taken wildlife threats into consideration, but with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of road in Ontario, retrofitting existing routes would be difficult and prohibitively expensive. Davy says researchers are focusing on areas where turtles face the highest road mortality rates.
Increasing the Blanding’s turtle population also involves raising young specimens in captivity to an age at which they’re less vulnerable to predators and then releasing them into the wild. Captive breeding combined with smarter infrastructure development could be a big help to the species.
“The prognosis for recovery depends completely on how we choose to develop the landscape in Ontario. It is that simple. If we can ensure developments going forward are put in in a way that minimizes impacts to the Blanding’s turtle and other species, the prognosis is quite good,” Davy says. “It could go either way and it just depends on how we manage to find a good balance.”