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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: A Pretty Good Year for Turtles

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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by Susan Hellauer

It was a turtlefest with all the trimmings: civic and business leaders, volunteers, turtle experts, lots of kids, lemonade, and a sunny afternoon. But the stars of the show were 50 baby snapping turtles, most of them rescued from a mama who didn’t make it across a busy road near the Palisades Mall. Her eggs were harvested, hatched and raised by Dr. Zach Whitman of Creature Comforts Animal Hospital in Poughkeepsie. These little guys were joined by five yearlings, nurtured by Natasha Karl of Hudson Valley Humane Society. Now, ready or not, they are about to face real life in the Hackensack River.

Last year’s hatchling release drew about 20 people. Last Sunday, more than 100 volunteers and guests swarmed a wooded West Nyack cul-de-sac for the baby turtle bon voyage, hosted by Suez Water NY for the local conservation group Turtles of Western Highway (TWH), now an affiliate of Hudson Valley Humane Society. This grassroots effort goes back to 2009, when a handful of Orangetown neighbors sought ways to end the snapping turtle slaughter-by-car that happens every year during the late spring nesting migration. Their human protectors put up warning signs, eventually enlisted crossing guards, and, with help from the Blauvelt Library and Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, got print and TV coverage for their cause.

turtle conservation

Natasha Karl, Wildlife Rehab specialist of Hudson Valley Humane Society, with snapper hatchlings on the verge of release at the Turtles of Western Highway event in West Nyack. Photo: Susan Hellauer

Rockland drinking water supplier Suez NY, which manages the Hackensack River, is solidly behind the conservation project, to which it has donated funds. The Towns of Orangetown and Clarkstown pitched in with illuminated traffic signs. Turtle experts recommended a protective barrier from the road with fenced-in nesting mounds to deter the turtles from crossing. SUEZ authorized the fencing, O’Sullivan’s Tree Service donated soil, Beckerle Lumber and Lowes helped out with materials, and the County Sheriff’s Community Service along with numerous volunteers all helped to install the fence, keeping mother turtles and their babies safely on the river side of the road. The result? Although several hatchlings were lost on their way back to the river, there were no adult turtle fatalities last spring on Western Highway—a triumph for TWH.

Carolyn Hill, a TWH founding member, made sure that Sunday’s guests understood why all this work to save a couple of turtles mattered: “One thing is certain; given the decline of the population over the last 20-30 years, without intervention, there won’t be any turtles in this area 20-30 years from now.”

Turtle conservation experts to the rescue

To understand their local Jurassic-era reptiles, and help them fend off extinction, Western Highway’s turtle protectors have worked closely with wildlife experts. One of them, retired international opera singer-turned-turtle-guru Patricia Johnson, spoke at Sunday’s event about her work. The Yorktown Heights, N.Y. resident also spoke with Earth Matters about her own turtle journey, and how we all can help support these ancient creatures, who are faced with relentless habitat loss and threat of extinction.

Earth Matters: How and when did you connect with turtles?

Patricia Johnson: It was Wednesday morning, June 9th 2004, when we saw her crossing the road at the bottom of the hill from our house. My husband, Mark, waited in the car while I carried the Eastern box turtle across and deposited her in the direction she was heading.

That evening, we spotted her on our front walkway. She had already begun her work digging out the soft soil between the flagstones. It was 6:30p, and we decided to keep vigil to ensure that her eggs got into their nest safe from the local skunks and raccoons. Around 2a, she was done laying her nest. We placed our recycling bin over the top of the nest and weighted it with rocks for temporary safe-keeping.

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turtle conservation

Wildlife rehabilitator and turtle expert Patricia Johnson releases a snapping turtle hatchling into the Hackensack River in West Nyack. Photo: Susan Hellauer

EM: That seems like a long labor for a little turtle. How many eggs do turtles lay?

PJ: A box turtle can live up to 80-120 years. She will lay 1-2 clutches of 2-10 eggs per year. And maybe 2-3 will make it to adulthood. The eggs are very vulnerable to predators like skunks and raccoons. Even when the eggs are buried these predators will sniff them out and dig them up to have an easy treat.

Turtle eggs take anywhere from 50-120 days to incubate. When they hatch, the young are about the size of a quarter. With this begins yet another vulnerable stage of their life. They usually will crawl under some moist leaves, but are still tender morsels for an even wider range of predators: crows, blue jays, ants, and even grass roots.

The common snapping turtle female—like those on Western Highway—needs to lay over 1,500 eggs over her entire life time (up to 60-100 years) to help maintain a healthy population. The adults need to have over a 94% survival rate for a population to remain stable.

EM: What kind of training did you seek out in order to help more turtles?

PJ: After seeing the turtle in our yard, I saw a notice that a local wildlife preserve was looking for “citizen scientists.” I thought, “Gee, maybe I could be one of those!” At the orientation, I met the land stewardship manager, who was also interested in turtles.

Shortly afterwards, the animal care supervisor suggested I become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

After becoming licensed, I realized that I needed a lot more training to be able to do this work well. I began attending wildlife rehabilitation conferences, and I took every turtle workshop I could.

In 2013, I completed a 10-day post-graduate program in Reptile Monitoring offered by the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.

I’m currently collaborating with Dr. Zach Whitman to create a non-profit reptile conservation center in the Hudson Valley.

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EM: How common is this kind of snapping turtle rescue and release—like the Turtles of Western Highway event last Sunday? Is this something that people are doing in other places?

PJ: In recent decades, there has been increased public interest in the plight of turtles worldwide, and we’re seeing more citizen efforts like the Western Highway project.. The love of sea turtles is a great example. What people don’t realize is that sea turtles were not considered animals of any importance merely a century ago. Our common snapping turtle is our local majestic version of this amazing species. It is my hope that snapping turtles will receive similar protection and support in the future.

turtle conservation

The streamlined green turtle and most of its marine cousins are now protected species. Photo: Andy Bruckner, NOAA

EM: Are other kinds of turtles, besides the box, sea and snapping turtles, in need of help?

PJ: Turtles are going extinct faster than any other type of vertebrate in the world. While this extinction is moving at a turtle’s pace, we are currently witnessing its progress. This is represented by populations that have only geriatric members and by what has happened to the Western Highway population; the females are just reaching reproductive age but are not surviving the migration to nesting sites. These turtles are all the size of young 12-16 year olds.

EM: Species go extinct all the time. Why go the extra mile for a turtle that can remove your finger with a snap of its bolt-cutter jaws?

PJ: Humans don’t always consider that we’re a part of the web of life. When one part of that web is removed, all species suffer in some way through a domino effect. When you think of the current plight of bees, the public didn’t get truly interested until it was made clear that our sources of food could be damaged. Turtles fulfill a very important role in the ecosystem. They are the great balancers of an ecosystem’s food supply. If there is an abundance of plant material in a pond, the snapping turtle will shift its diet to being primarily vegetarian. Not all animals have this capacity. There are also species of algae that can only survive on a turtle’s shell and a trematode flatworm that needs a turtle host as part of its life-cycle. We’re just starting to understand the roles turtles play in maintaining this fragile web.

Sadly, the concept of “bolt cutter jaws” has led to some of the persecution of snapping turtles. The fact is that this animal is very vulnerable when on land. (I like to think of them as aquatic pachyderms.) They have a lot of exposed flesh, and their shells only provide so much protection. It has been my experience that they only snap when they are threatened, and their snap is a firm warning. In all my years working in turtle conservation, I have never read of an account of someone having a toe bitten while swimming in a pond. There are, however, accounts of people getting bitten when tormenting or poking an otherwise passive snapper.

turtle conservation

Female snapper on a custom nesting mound behind safety fencing between the Hackensack River and busy Western Highway.Photo courtesy The Turtles of Western Highway via Facebook

EM: Do people still hunt turtles?

PJ: There was a period when turtle soup was considered a delicacy in America. The diamondback terrapin was almost hunted to extinction during the last century. Lack of supply led this culinary item to fall by the wayside. Turtles are still legally hunted in many states, and you can find snapping turtle soup on some menus. While they may find turtle delicious, I hope people begin reconsidering eating them and start to understand that the populations cannot sustain the loss.

Another reason snapping turtles are persecuted is the myth that they kill all the ducklings. While they may need to consume one on occasion for survival, their overall impact on duck populations is minimal and poses little threat to hunting. Hunters, by the way, are among the main financial supporters of wildlife conservation and most are keenly interested in keeping our wildlife plentiful. 

EM: Is turtle conservation on the rise in NY State?

PJ: Yes, New York State recently banned the hunting of the diamondback terrapin and is now requiring that those who recreationally trap crab have turtle escape devices (TED) on their traps. These are similar in design to those that currently protect our sea turtles.

turtle conservation

Diamondback terrapin. Photo courtesy NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation

EM: What kinds of turtles do we have in our area, besides snapping turtles? Do they need our help too?

PJ: The Hudson Valley boasts having some of the richest turtle biodiversity in the US. There are twelve different species of turtle living in New York.

Here are a few things that will help our native turtles continue to survive:

1. When a turtle is crossing the road, carry it across to safety in the direction it is heading.

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2. If you know you have a resident turtle, be careful mowing your lawn, or alert your lawn mowing service to its presence. Better yet, try to walk the property and carry your turtle to a nearby non-mowable area prior to your lawn service arriving. It is helpful to have them begin mowing from the center and work outwards to the edges.

3. Do not let your dogs near areas where there are turtles . It only takes a dog a few minutes to damage or kill a turtle. 

4. Never take a healthy turtle out of its environment. It is illegal. Also, don’t move it to another location. They are very territorial and will often simply try to walk back home.

5. If you discover a female laying eggs: Keep vigil if you can, and watch from a comfortable distance. Once the nest is finished, protect it by covering it with a wire cage about 2 1/2 feet in diameter, weighting the top. If the space between the wires is the diameter of a quarter, they can simply hatch and crawl off.

turtle conservation

Snapping turtle crosses Western Highway safely with the help of a Turtles of Western Highway crossing guard. Photo courtesy Turtles of Western Highway

EM: How can people or groups get involved in turtle conservation year-round?

PJ: There are many ways people can help. If they don’t have the time, they can donate to a favorite land trust, wildlife conservation non-profit, or a local rehabilitator. If money is short, they can offer their talents, including: providing transport for injured animals, website development, or the donation of supplies. If people are very dedicated, they should consider becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator; they can then apprentice and learn more about a specific species. As a class II wildlife rehabilitator, I’m authorized to mentor turtle rehabilitators.

Learn more:

The Turtles of Western Highway needs volunteers year-round, not just at turtle migration time. Donations will also be made possible through its partner organization the Hudson Valley Humane Society. “We hope to extend the fence which will be a tremendous effort,” said TWH’s Carolyn Hill at Sunday’s hatchling release event. For details about volunteering, visit The Turtles of Western Highway Facebook page.

 

turtle conservation

Baby snapping turtle just before release onto the muddy bank of the Hackensack River in West Nyack. Photo by Jane Murphy for Turtles of Western Highway.


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