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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: How to Save a Snapping Turtle

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.
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Cute they’re not. But the common snapping turtle, NY State’s official reptile and one of our oldest neighbors in Rockland County, is in trouble.

Every year, from about mid-May to mid-June, snapper females migrate from the wetlands and waterways they inhabit year round to higher and drier nesting grounds, where each lays a clutch of up to 30 round white eggs. Mama then returns to her watery home while her eggs mature, the hatchlings emerging in late summer.

Sounds simple, right? But at a snapping turtle habitat in Orangetown, it’s anything but. Egg-bearing turtles along a stretch of Western Highway north of Theis Lane must cross that busy road from the Hackensack River on the west side to their nesting sites on the east, and back. About ten years ago, the turtle vs. traffic slaughter there got to be just too much for local residents. The severe decline in snapping turtle numbers noticed by these neighbors is confirmed by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC), which warns New Yorkers statewide to be on the lookout for migrating snapping turtles near marshes and waterbodies at this time of year.

A snapping turtle conservation block party

snapping turtle migration

A volunteer safely stops traffic for a turtle on Western Highway. Photo courtesy Turtles of Western Highway

The Western Highway campaign started pretty simply, in 2009, with hand-lettered “turtle crossing” lawn signs warning motorists to slow down and look out. But not every driver was willing to add a few seconds to the commute or errand run for a slow-moving prehistoric creature with bolt-cutter jaws that could slice your finger off without remorse. Nevertheless, the signage effort continued, along with courageous (and careful) residents who helped move the turtles across the street by grasping their shells on the back-half of both sides, just in front of the back feet (never by the tail, which can damage the spine), or by sliding them to safety on car mats.

This grassroots effort picked up some publicity and some helpful allies in 2012 with a story in The Hook Magazine, along with logo, flyer and sign design the next year by Laura Grunwerg and Barry Koch, of the Blauvelt Library. Foley Sign Shop of Orangeburg created placards with these designs and donated them to the turtle protectors. Orangetown Police Animal Control helped with traffic direction; the Hudson Valley Humane Society and Valley Cottage Animal Hospital provided veterinary services for injured animals; and there was more print and local TV press coverage.

By 2014, the community outreach grew, and over the next two years there were plenty of volunteers (up to 20 regulars) and enthusiastic support from local government and businesses. The county highway department provided orange cones for the middle of the road. O’Sullivan’s Tree Care on Western Highway supplied volunteer safety materials and topsoil for nesting mounds. And Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart authorized a flashing “Slow Down:  Turtles Crossing” sign. The Clarkstown Police Department placed a sign on the north end of the turtle zone. More TV and print coverage touted the home-grown conservation project.

A community of turtle power

snapping turtle egg extraction

At Valley Cottage Animal Hospital, Dr. Zach Whitman extracts eggs for incubation from a turtle fatally injured by a car. Photo courtesy Turtles of Western Highway

Even so, there were the inevitable casualties. During last year’s migration, volunteer veterinarian Zach Whitman (then with the Valley Cottage Animal Hospital) was unable to save an injured turtle mom. He extracted and incubated her eggs, to be released in the fall with the other hatchlings. But the Hackensack River along Western Highway is owned by SUEZ Water New York, the county’s largest water supplier. The multinational water treatment corporation, headquartered locally in West Nyack, offered to find the best locations for the turtle-baby release, and to help build up and protect the snapping turtle habitat, a project coordinated enthusiastically by SUEZ’s Bill Madden, Director of External Affairs for the NY operation.

This year, SUEZ has given its blessing to a silt-fence project, recommended by consulting herpetologists and conservationists, meant to guide the turtles to handmade nesting mounds on the river side of the road. An astounding 2300 feet of silt fence was trenched, buried, backfilled, and stapled over three weekends this spring with the help of the county Community Service Program and other volunteers.

snapping turtle laying eggs

Western Highway snapping turtle mom laying eggs on a handcrafted mound, kept safe on the river side of the road by volunteer-built silt fencing. Photo courtesy Turtles of Western Highway

The journey from a group of neighbors with a few lawn signs in 2009, to this battalion of silt-fence project turtle helpers is nothing short of a community conservation miracle:

  • SUEZ Water New York, Bill Madden
  • O’Sullivan Tree Care, Jim O’Sullivan and employees
  • Sheriff Louis Falco and the Community Service Program
  • Orangetown Town Supervisor Andy Stewart
  • Beckerle Lumber, Orangetown
  • Lowes of Orangeburg
  • Barahona’s Landscaping of Blauvelt
  • Hudson Valley Humane Society, Ann Marie Gaudio
  • Dr. Zach Whitman, DVM at Creature Comforts Animal Hospital, Poughkeepsie
  • Patricia Johnson, Advisor and Certified Reptile Monitoring, Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, NYS Class II Wildlife Rehabilitator
  • and many generous local volunteers

Snap to it!

The new stretch of silt fencing seems to be working. Turtle moms are taking to their ready-made mounds, with no need for them—or their hatchlings—to cross Western Highway. But to this point, the project covers only a part of the turtle road crossing area, and volunteer escorts are still needed for high traffic (turtle and vehicle) times.

Please consider joining this important conservation effort to help our urban wildlife survive and thrive. Visit the Turtles of Western Highway Facebook page. “Like” it. And send a message with your contact information. A turtle-keeper will be with you shortly.

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina):

  • is found all over the eastern US and southern Canada
  • roamed with Cretaceous-period dinosaurs like T-rex and Triceratops 70,000,000 years ago
  • inhabits freshwater and brackish marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers and streams
  • grows to 20 inches long and weighs up to 35 pounds
  • can live to over 100 years (30-40 years average)
  • can take 15 years or more to reach reproductive maturity
  • female lays 30 or more eggs a year
  • has a hooked beak, long flexible neck, long sawtoothed tail, and long strong claws
  • can’t pull its extremities into its carapace, like other turtles
  • won’t attack people, but will defend itself with its strong, sharp jaws
  • is omnivorous, dining on everything from fish and young waterfowl to algae
  • hibernates in winter under the mud of its home wetland
  • is threatened by habitat destruction and roads, as well as egg and hatchling loss to suburban predators like raccoons, skunks and foxes.
snapping turtles hatchling

Orangetown Town Supervisor Andy Stewart at late August 2016 hatchling release festivities. “Every year a cadre of volunteers helps keep these little baby snapping turtles and their mommas safe as they cross Western Highway,” said Stewart. “Orangetown supports these efforts by spreading the word about the migration and providing a variable message sign near the crossing area to warn motorists to slow down.”

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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.

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