Did you know that turtles have been around since before the time of dinosaurs? They managed for millennia to avoid problems by simply hiding in their shells whenever trouble showed up.

But that well-honed defense mechanism doesn’t work well against fast-moving SUVs and trucks. And that’s why turtles need our help, especially in June when many of them will be crossing Northland roads and highways to get to mating and nesting areas and to move from wintering areas to summer waterways.

Soon, baby turtles will be out and about, too.

Roadway mortality is believed to be a major factor in turtle population declines in the Northland and across the U.S. (Habitat loss and predation of turtle nests by raccoons, skunks and coyotes are other major problems.) And unlike most creatures in nature which can do just fine without us, turtles are one species that may now need a helping hand.

Some species — such as wood turtles and Blanding’s turtles — take 12 to 20 years to reach reproductive maturity, so the death of even one female turtle can take a big toll. That’s why both the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of natural resources are asking people to pick up most turtles they see on the road, move them in the direction they were headed, and place them safely off the road on the other side.

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Since the Wisconsin DNR began seeking information about turtle sightings and turtle crossings in 2012, people have provided more than 7,500 reports, with roughly half of those identifying turtle crossings. Such reports have substantially increased awareness and education boosting turtle conservation in the state. The information is entered into the Natural Heritage Inventory, a database of rare species locations and population information.

Highway departments often work with wildlife agencies to figure out safe ways to get turtles across (or under or around) highways. Last year Girl Scout Ella Kreuziger contacted the DNR about a highway in Waukesha County where many turtles were crossing. She raised money to pay for stenciling a turtle crossing sign to alert motorists. The Waukesha County highway department did the work last fall and Ella received her Silver Award in scouting for helping turtles cross to safety.

Blanding's turtles are still seen across much of Minnesota but have become far less numerous, in part because so many are killed making seasonal migrations across roads. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)
Blanding's turtles are still seen across much of Minnesota but have become far less numerous, in part because so many are killed making seasonal migrations across roads. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)

Report Blanding's and wood turtle sightings

Despite its threatened species status, Blanding's turtles are still seen fairly often in some areas of Minnesota. But fewer and fewer young Blanding's are hatching each year due to habitat loss, road mortality and, in some cases, illegal poaching to be sold as pets. Wood turtles are facing similar issues.

Both species remain legally protected throughout all of Minnesota and technically may not be handled or possessed without a special permit. However, in life-or-death situations (for the turtle) it's OK to help them cross a road. Do not bring the turtle into an automobile or place in a container, even temporarily, while helping the turtle out of harm's way.

When possible, document your encounter for Blanding's and wood turtles with a couple of photographs, be sure to note the date and your location. Email or call your regional DNR nongame wildlife specialist. In Northeastern Minnesota that’s Gaea Crozier at gaea.crozier@state.mn.us or 218-328-8811. In Northwestern Minnesota it’s Amy Westmark at amy.westmark@state.mn.us or 218-308-2641.

Wood turtles are declining in parts of the Northland due to habitat loss and because of mortality while crossing roadways during seasonal migrations.  (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)
Wood turtles are declining in parts of the Northland due to habitat loss and because of mortality while crossing roadways during seasonal migrations. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)

Snappers and softshells: Be careful!

Although many turtles may attempt to bite when restrained, snapping turtles and spiny softshells, often referred to as leatherbacks, are particularly aggressive, surprisingly quick and will bite with little provocation. In addition, exceptionally long necks enable snappers and softshells to reach around and deliver painful bites if picked up by the sides of the shell.

Only experienced handlers should attempt to lift snapping turtles or softshells clear of the ground. Snapping turtles should never be picked up by the tail; this can damage their spinal cord. Grabbing an aggressive turtle by one rear leg while supporting the turtle from below with your other hand is usually safe for both you and the turtle. Or you can encourage movement off the road with a twig or branch, broom, shovel or similar object to gently prod the animals along from behind. (If the turtle bites your prodding device it may hang on long enough to be pulled to safety.)

How to help turtles cross the road:

  • Don't put yourself or others in danger. Pull off the road and turn on your hazard lights to alert other drivers to slow down. Check your surroundings and be careful of traffic.

  • Same direction! Always move turtles in the same direction they were traveling when encountered. Turtles should always be moved across roadways in as direct a line as possible. Do not take them to a nearby lake or pond, that may not be where they were going.

  • Avoid excessive handling. Take a quick look, snap a photo and then release the turtle quickly in a safe spot.

  • Allow unassisted crossings if possible. When turtles can safely cross roads unaided due to a lack of oncoming traffic, let them do so. Observe from a distance and avoid rapid movements, as doing otherwise will often cause turtles to change direction, stop or hide within their shells.

  • Handle turtles gently. If it's necessary to pick them up, all turtles except snappers and softshells should be grasped gently along the shell edge near the midpoint of the body. Warning: Many turtles empty their bladder when lifted off the ground, so be careful not to drop them if they should suddenly start peeing.

  • Document your find. Help wildlife experts document turtle crossing and mortality areas by participating in the Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally & Count Project. Go to herpmapper.org and register to file your findings. In Wisconsin report your turtle Report roadways where turtles are crossing or are dead on the road.

  • Build a nest cage to protect turtle eggs and later, hatchlings, if turtles are nesting on your property. Find instructions and a step-by-step video for a nest cage that allows hatchlings to exit but keeps predators like raccoons and skunks out.

  • In Wisconsin, report turtle mortality on road at wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles.

Sources: Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin DNR