Nova Scotia

Permit issues put snapping turtles at risk, rescue group says

A group that rescues snapping turtles say a permit requirement is preventing them from helping vulnerable turtles, including at three nesting sites in Lower Sackville.

'It just doesn't make sense. They're an endangered species. You try and help them every way you can'

Snapping Turtles are shown emerging from the nest. Snapping Turtle nests are increasingly located at roadsides, exposing them to disturbance from construction and traffic. (Turtle Patrol/Facebook)

An organization that helps snapping turtles says an apparent change in policy at the Department of Lands and Forestry is preventing them from helping turtles at risk. 

Turtle Patrol is dedicated to rescuing snapping turtles. As their habitat disappears, the turtles — which are on the endangered species list as a species of special concern in Nova Scotia — are increasingly nesting in places where they're exposed to danger, like the sides of roads.

Nesting on roadsides exposes breeding females, eggs and hatchlings to disturbance from traffic and road construction

But recently, Turtle Patrol co-founder Clarence Stevens said the group was told by Lands and Forestry that it would be illegal for them to touch eggs or hatchlings, including those at three turtle nesting sites affected by road construction in Lower Sackville. 

The road in Sackville where Turtle Patrol believes two snapping turtle nests have been buried by the widening of the shoulder. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

"So we ceased immediately," Stevens said. "We also contacted all our volunteers and said the same thing — we'll have to cease field work," Stevens said. "It just doesn't make sense. They're an endangered species. You try and help them every way you can."

The nests in question are three sites on Cobequid Road, where Turtle Patrol believes that two nests were covered by small gravel after the shoulder was widened. A third ended up under large gravel.

Turtle Patrol "physically saw the females laying there" before construction began, Stevens said. 

Until recently, Stevens said Turtle Patrol would have dug up the eggs from a site threatened by construction and taken them to Hope for Wildlife to be incubated,. Later, the toonie-sized hatchlings would be released back into the environment.

Clarence Stevens holds one of the rocks that have covered a snapping turtle nest as a result of recent road construction. Turtle Patrol is seeking permission to move the rocks to rescue eggs and hatchlings. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

In the past, Stevens said this work did not require a permit. 

"And then just a couple of weeks ago [Lands and Forestry] said, 'Yes, you need a permit' … and then they basically told us we're breaking the law touching any turtles." 

Group told 'we're wasting our time'

Stevens said they started the permitting process, but paused after Lands and Forestry sent notes on their application that indicated they weren't going to get a permit. He said Turtle Patrol then asked if they should continue with the process. 

"We asked for clarification, that was the answer we got, that we're wasting our time, that it didn't matter to the recovery of the species."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Lands and Forestry said that all conservation activities need to be conducted under a permit that meets the specifications of the Endangered Species Act.

The spokesperson said the department is working with Turtle Patrol on an application for a permit to count egg shells and place hatchling turtles in aquatic habitats, and that they are waiting for more information from Turtle Patrol to complete that application.

The statement also read that the department keeps a record of snapping turtle nest locations, and has no record of turtle nests at the site in Lower Sackville. 

Earlier this spring, before Turtle Patrol was informed it would need permits, the group found out about a similar situation where construction in Dartmouth was threatening several nests.

Working with the city and the province, Turtle Patrol was able to save the eggs from one nest.

"We were all working together, and really, that's the way things should be," said Stevens.

Fear of turtles trapped

Without a permit to do similar work at the site in Lower Sackville, Stevens is concerned that baby turtles, which are due to hatch at this time, won't be able to dig out and make it to the water on their own. 

"If we were allowed, we could remove those large rocks off them, at least give them a chance, but we can't do that."

Stevens said they're asking the Department of Lands and Forestry to allow them to return to the work they've done in the past, helping vulnerable turtles.

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia