Endangered turtles saved by citizens of Ontario hamlet
'To achieve a reduction of 80 to 90% mortality is just amazing. That was the biggest surprise'
Long Point is a popular camping destination in southern Ontario, a rich ecological site with an abundance of wildlife, and part of UNESCO's World Biosphere Reserve. It is full of marshes, dunes, beaches and forests.
But it is also deadly.
On a 3.6-kilometre stretch of road on Lake Erie's Long Point Causeway, thousands of frogs, snakes, turtles — approximately 10,000 by some counts and some that are endangered or threatened like the Blanding's turtle — were killed annually until recently.
Residents of the area could no longer stand seeing the carcasses of frogs and snakes on the causeway, so they banded together to work toward a solution.
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Turtles and snakes use the causeway for many reasons. Some cross it to breed, forage or nest. Snakes may settle on the road to warm themselves.
Disturbingly, a 2005 study found that about three per cent of drivers, upon spotting something believed to be a snake or turtle, would swerve intentionally to hit the animal on that stretch of road.
Whether intentional or not, it was clear that this one roadway was a graveyard for vulnerable species.
"The problem, of course, is if you keep on killing that many of a species year after year after year, you eventually run out of species," Rick Levick, of the Long Point World Biosphere Reserve Foundation, told CBC News.
"Particularly ones that are already threatened and endangered."
Citizens in the region decided to come up with a plan: build a fence along the roadway with culverts for the animals to cross.
"People in the community said 'Enough is enough. We're tired of seeing this annual carnage on the road, and we're going to set about trying to figure out if there's some way we can deal with it and stop it,'" Levick said. Thus, a long-term, complete project was begun.
More than $2.5 million was raised over 10 years to finance the project, including funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Sustain Our Great Lakes Program.
Erecting fences or constructing bridges to protect wildlife has been done before. In Banff, a wildlife bridge was built to keep bears, cougars and other off the busy Trans-Canada Highway.
Sudbury, Ont., has a similar bridge.
But this is the first extensive fencing and culvert project. Chantel Markle, from the department of biology at McMaster University in Hamilton, wanted to study how effective such a robust protection system was for species in the area.
Over 11 years, researchers tracked how many species and total number of animals were being killed on the road.
What they found was that by combining the fence and the culverts, nearly 89 per cent fewer turtles were making it to the causeway. It also provided researchers with key information on protecting wildlife.
"I think the most important thing that we found is the fact that you really have to have complete fencing in your road section," Markle told CBC News. "We found that areas on that had only partial fencing we weren't getting the reduction."
That, she says, is unfortunate since some towns may not have the funding to build a long fence in an area where species are vulnerable.
They've had a lot of challenges on the way: environmental assessments, copious amounts of paperwork, coming up with the correct material and more. Even cameras had to be modified, since they were having difficulty tracking the slow-moving turtles (for example, researchers discovered that it took a snapping turtle about nine minutes to move across roughly 15 metres).
If they could fit through, they'd go through.- Rick Levick, conservationist
But the turtles and snakes did use the culvert — and not only them, but several other animals as well.
"We have photograph of minks and weasels and frogs and whoever wanted to go through; if they could fit through, they'd go through," Levick said.
Levick said that he was surprised at the success.
"We didn't know when we started out what impact we could have," he said. "But to achieve a reduction of 80 to 90 per cent mortality is just amazing. That was the biggest surprise; that we could actually make that big an impact."
Markle said the study illustrates the importance of complete fencing along with the construction of culverts. Together, these two things save the lives of thousands of animals, and several species, five turtles of which are either endangered, threatened or of special concern.
"The diversity and species is really important and encouraging," she said.
Both Markle and Levick hope their findings will help other communities in their endeavours to save wildlife. But the project also has another important outcome, Markle said.
"It's really encouraging how so many different community groups can come together to make a difference, and that you really can make a difference."