Roads are Dangerous Places for Wildlife
With the ever-increasing encroachment of human settlement and the resulting expansion of road networks, wildlife habitats are getting smaller and further apart. Roads can have significant impacts on wildlife communities and their ability to move throughout their home ranges. To reach the things they need to survive and reproduce (e.g. food, mates, hibernation sites), wildlife find themselves on roadways more often, and unfortunately this often leads to injury or death.
Key vehicle-wildlife collision hotspots
To minimize these impacts, the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) has developed subwatershed plans. These plans, which are a requirement of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, recommend that reviewers of Environmental Assessments for municipal infrastructure preserve barrier-free connectivity for wildlife between nearby wetland and upland habitats. Recommendations include the use of alternate routes and wildlife crossing structures, and/or the use of traffic calming measures in critical locations.
In implementing this recommendation, LSRCA staff have received requests from municipal staff to help determine if there are some areas in the watershed where road-associated mortality in amphibians and reptiles is more likely to occur.
Road Mortality Hotspots
There are over 5,000 kilometres of roads in the Lake Simcoe watershed, many running through natural areas, such as forests and wetlands, where wildlife live and travel. Where roads pass through these areas, wildlife road mortality is more likely to occur. To better understand the scope of the issue, our researchers analyzed where key wildlife habitat and roadways intersect in order to identify vehicle-wildlife collision ‘hotspots’.
Maps of potential hotspots for collisions between vehicles and frogs or turtles have been developed for all municipalities in the Lake Simcoe watershed, representing over 37% of the roadways in the watershed. The result was that over 1,800 kilometres of wildlife collision hotspots were flagged, confirming that this was a significant issue for the wildlife of the watershed that needed further investigation.
Turtles Hit Hard by Roads
Turtles are an important part of wetland ecosystems: They spread plants across wetlands, filter the water by eating plants and dead fish, and create waste for other species to eat.
Of the eight turtle species native to Ontario, all but one are considered to be at risk of extinction. A main threat to turtle populations are roads. There are four turtle species found in the Lake Simcoe watershed (snapping turtles, midland painted turtles, Blanding’s turtles, and map turtles); all of these species except painted turtles are at risk.
Turtles move around a lot throughout the year – they move between different habitats to hibernate, find food, mate, and lay their eggs. In fact, a female may travel many kilometres in order to lay her eggs. Because of this movement, they often find themselves on roads, and since they are not quick to cross they often get injured or killed.
Turtles have long lifespans; some species live as long as humans do. They also take a long time to mature and reproduce; the death of even a single adult turtle can have an impact on the entire population. This is compounded by the fact that such a small number of hatchlings (less than 1%) survive to adulthood in the first place. As such, everything we can do to prevent adults or hatchlings from being killed on the road has a positive impact on the survival of the entire species.
The Extent of the Problem
In 2015, LSRCA researchers began monitoring wildlife road mortality at nine sites in the watershed to measure the severity of the issue. On one stretch of road, over a 13-week period, researchers tallied the deaths of 39 turtles, 21 frogs, 8 snakes, 12 birds and 13 small mammals. This amounts to over 8 animals killed per week, per kilometre of road. When extrapolated across all wildlife collision hotspots in the Lake Simcoe watershed, we estimate that tens of thousands of animals are killed along our roads each week during the active seasons (spring and fall).
Our monitoring work confirms we have a problem. LSRCA’s “ecopassage” pilot project designs and installs five ecopassages at key collision hotspots and monitors their effectiveness at reducing roadkill. We anticipate the end result to be a “how to” manual that road agencies can use to install their own ecopassages when undertaking routine road maintenance or building new roads in identified hotspots.
Below is a section of road before and after installation of a wildlife ecopassage. A driver along the road would not necessarily even know that it exists. The fencing directs wildlife away from roads and towards underground culverts or bridges to safely cross the road.
Artificial nests (mounds of sand and gravel) were also installed at the sites to provide a safe place for females to lay their eggs without needing to cross the road.
After one season of monitoring, the results are promising, with a 67% decrease in turtle road mortality at the test sites since the fencing has been installed. This is compared to no significant change at the control sites. We have also found evidence of female turtles using the nesting structures to lay their eggs in the spring.
Wildlife Ecopassage Locations
We will continue to monitor ecopassages throughout the fall of 2016 and into spring 2017 to assess their effectiveness at reducing wildlife road mortality. We hope to expand the project into other areas of the watershed.
We are also working with municipalities and road agencies to educate them on the benefits of ecopassages. Providing wildlife passage options over or under roads, along with fencing to direct wildlife, is critically important when new roads are constructed, particularly in potential hotspot areas. On existing roads, we are encouraging the installation of ecopassages during scheduled road construction.
How You Can Help Turtles
- Watch for turtles on the road – especially in spring and fall when they are moving around through their different habitats. Watch for turtle crossing signs and slow down when driving through natural areas.
- Help them across the road – if safe to do so – make sure to always help them in the direction they are already going, or they might just cross back over the road again. If a female is actively laying eggs on a roadway, leave her alone since any attention will stress her and affect her nesting behaviour.
- Never hold a turtle by the tail – This is part of their spine and will cause them grave injury. Instead, hold a turtle firmly by the back of its shell, or use an object such as your car mat, or a box or shovel to carefully help them cross the road.
- Be particularly careful with snapping turtles – they don’t know that you’re helping them and will try and protect themselves by biting or scratching you. Report your turtle sightings – report sightings to Ontario Nature or download their app. You can also report any injured turtles to the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (705-741-5000) or to Scales Nature Park in Oro-Medonte (705-327-2808).
- Share what you’ve learned with others – word of mouth is a powerful tool and together we can all make the roads safer for turtles.
Who to Contact:
Toll Free: 1-800-465-0437
This newsletter was originally published in 2016 in Lake Simcoe Living Magazine.