A small but resilient population of Blanding's turtles could have a big impact on a major housing development planned for Kanata.

Blanding's turtles are considered a threatened species, which means they're at risk of becoming extinct if measures aren't taken to protect them.

Researchers spent four years tagging and tracking the yellow-throated reptiles living in and around the South March Highlands, and have now submitted a "Conservation Needs Assessment" to the province.

The study was required as part of the city's plan to extend Terry Fox Drive, but it's now being used to guide negotiations between the Ministry of Natural Resources and KNL Developments Limited over Phase 9 of the company's Kanata Lakes project.

The environmental consultant hired by the City to conduct the research and prepare the report, Dillon Consulting Limited, found a population of about 100 Blanding's turtles in the South March Highlands.

Tagged with microchips

In order to determine that, researchers trapped the animals, marked their shells for identification, tagged them with microchips, and even fitted some with radio transmitters to pinpoint their movements.

"We discovered first of all that we had a lot more turtles than we suspected," said Nick Stow, the city's senior planner overseeing the project. "And we found that they were ranging all over the South March Highlands. Most of them were in our Conservation Forest Lands, but a fair number were also in lands slated for urban development, so the Kanata Lakes lands."

Stow said researchers discovered at least one nesting area and one overwintering area within the land belonging to KNL.

"It's important to know where the turtles are moving so you can avoid them as much as possible. It's important to know where their nesting areas are, their overwintering areas, because they return habitually to those areas year after year," Stow says.

Tunnels for turtles

It's unlikely the turtles' presence in the South March Highlands will halt development, but the province could demand costly mitigation measures to protect the population.

For example, a little-known feature of the Terry Fox Drive extension is a series of tunnels under the roadway that allow Blanding's turtles — and all sorts of other creatures — to pass safely from one side to the other.

According to the report submitted to the province, "In the absence of planned mitigation measures and/or compensation, it is assumed that Blanding's turtle habitat in the development area would be lost."

"We're not just talking about a hundred turtles," said Stow. "We're talking about a population of turtles. So we're talking about the turtles that are there now, and all of the turtles that will be there in the future. So it's not the cost of those hundred turtles. It's the cost of maintaining that population in the long term. It's also the cost of our principles."