It's time to help turtles cross the road

Mortality while crossing roads this time of year is one of the reasons some Northland turtles have become threatened species.

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A snapping turtle moves across a highway near Ely, encouraged a bit by the photographer. Wildlife experts are encouraging Northlanders to help turtles cross the road as they make seasonal migrations this time of year. But be careful with snappers! File / News Tribune

Northlanders are used to seeing dead deer along the road, casualties of our fast-paced mobile society, and an expensive problem for auto insurance companies for sure, but probably not a threat to overall deer populations.

The situation is different with some of the region’s turtles, which are fewer in number to begin with and which are killed at an alarming rate on roadways this time of year. So many turtles are killed on roadways that experts say it’s having a detrimental impact on the overall population of what already are some threatened turtle species, such as Blandings and wood turtles.

The problem is that, like opossum, the turtle’s defense mechanism of hiding in its shell worked well for millennia to save the species against predators but doesn’t work against speeding cars and trucks.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin, where all turtles are mainly aquatic, overland journeys usually occur during seasonal movements between different wetland habitats — especially in June. This is especially true during the early summer nesting migration of egg laden females and then again when newly hatched youngsters seek out the backwaters and ponds for a permanent home.

That’s where we can help. This is one of the rare times in wildlife management where human intervention is encouraged. And that’s why 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.


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 okay 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 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 or 218-328-8811. In northwestern Minnesota it’s Amy Westmark at or 218-308-2641.

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 like other turtles.

Only experienced handlers ever 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.

  • Avoid excessive handling. Take a quick look, snap a photo and then release them 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 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.

  • 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!

  • Document your find. Help wildlife experts document turtle crossing and mortality areas by participating in the Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally & Count Project. Go to and register to file your finding. In Wisconsin report your turtle finds at Sources: Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin DNR

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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