Saving Grace and researching roads to help area turtles

·7 min read

The first time Leora Berman was called to rescue Grace, one of Haliburton County’s oldest snapping turtles, was last year toward the end of the summer. Grace was crossing the street in front of the high school, and in doing so was also holding up a line of school buses. It took two people at that time to lift Grace, who is estimated to weigh more than 25 pounds. Using a makeshift sling, they carried the ancient turtle to Head Lake, in case she might be ready to hibernate.

A week later, Berman, who founded The Land Between conservation organization and the Turtle Guardians program, met Grace again.

“Someone called us a week later, in the evening, to say they had spotted Grace,” said Berman. “I went out that night because she’s such a precious one, because of her age.” According to research on the aging of turtles, it is likely based on Grace’s size of 39 centimetres that she is more than 125 years old, possibly anywhere up to 200 years old.

Using a “pizza hold method,” in which the turtle is approached from behind, and anchored and stabilized with one hand at the base of the tail while the other hand is held flat under the belly, Berman laid Grace in a wheelbarrow to help move the heavy elder safely. It’s important to never pick up a turtle by the tail which could risk damage to its spine, and also to be mindful of a snapping turtle’s defence in response to fear. “A snapping turtle in the wild will snap when they’re feeling threatened on land,” said Berman. “They rarely ever snap in the water unless they’ve been fed by someone fishing in the same spot all the time. They don’t snap, usually, out of defence in water – it would be in mistaking something for food. On land they tend to be pretty afraid, and a big turtle who is projecting a snap at that rate is pretty hard to maneuver.”

Grace, after her wheelbarrow transfer, walked right into the wetland. “It was pretty clear when we reached one part of the wetland that that’s exactly where she wanted to be because she just started to walk into the wetland and looked very comfortable,” said Berman. Grace is making good use of an area busy with humans and car traffic. Her hibernation site is likely the wetlands near the high school, and her feeding grounds include Head Lake and Kashagawigamog Lake. “Turtles know exactly where they’re going, and they recognize their entire territories,” said Berman. “Their navigation systems are just incredible and extremely mysterious. They could use the sun to navigate, plus the earth’s magnetics because of magnetites in their brains and/or different chemicals in their eyes that allows them to see earth’s magnetics, or they could be using all three of these tools, but they know exactly where they are.” Grace has been spotted on Highway 118, on Gelert Road, near the hospital, on Highland Street and on Highway 121, causing the Turtle Guardians program to act quickly in alerting the public to her whereabouts through their social media page, in an attempt to alert drivers of her path – and the paths of other turtles as they cross roads throughout the county, and prevent continued road mortality of the animals. Turtles make use of dedicated territories they have memorized as hatchlings, imprinting hibernation sites, seeding sites and mating areas, crossing roads in the same areas and often returning to the same hibernation site within one metre of the year before. “Grace is named for the absolute miracle of her longevity and existence without significant injury or death in this busy area of roads and boats,” reads the Turtle Guardians web site. “We have posted alerts to community members-at-large to watch for Grace on roads and notify us of any sightings. Grace needs to stay in her territory to survive and thrive and she needs our help. But Grace is like many other turtles – ancient, resilient and at the same time very vulnerable.” This spring, Berman said turtles have been reported on roads three weeks earlier than usual. The social media post about Grace and turtles crossing has reached 67,000 people. “I mean, it’s pretty neat to see people rally behind this, because that’s exactly what we need in order to save this species.” It is possible to experience local extinctions of turtles, said Berman, who noted that the pandemic did not slow the rate of turtle deaths on Haliburton County’s roads – “we’re just losing way too many.” “Turtles, because they’re slow-moving, they’re slow to do everything, they’re slow to reproduce, they’re slow to replace themselves in nature, and yet, they’re essential for our health and well-being,” said Berman. “Without turtles in the environment, we rely on nature. People have forgotten that without intact ecosystems we have very little hope of survival on this planet … Turtles, exactly as the Indigenous teachings go, a turtle holds most of the animals and earth on its back. Because a turtle is responsible for supporting about 70 per cent of Ontario’s fish and wildlife."

Young turtles scour lakes for protein, and help keep lakes free of pathogens by eating dead animals. As they age, they need less protein and more minerals, which they get through seed matter and vegetation – they’re beneficial in cycling nutrients, and spread seeds as they defecate in the territory they walk through, helping to grow new fish nurseries and moose habitats, ensuring the health of wetlands that Ontario’s wildlife use.

Elder females of the turtle population are most important, as the older a turtle is, the more fecund it is – the more eggs she lays. Without these “mother turtles,” Berman said there would be little hope of replacing lost populations, with the loss of what she said is 50 per cent of the turtle population in Ontario already. “Turtles are not at all like rodents,” said Berman. “They’re very slow to reproduce. They take up to an average of 60 years to replace themselves in nature, so they’re pretty precious creatures.” Though some people deliberately kill turtles, said Berman, most people understand that turtles are valuable. The program she launched – Turtle Guardians – forms a collaboration between at least 10 other organizations, enabling research over a stretch of land for a long time, and supporting groups in sharing data and information and capacity. “Turtles are also one of the most imperilled species in the world, and knowing that it takes so long to recruit them and there were so many threats, increasing threats, especially up here with the increasing road traffic, the decreasing natural vegetation around shores, I knew the threats to turtles were mounting and so I kind of figured for turtles to be saved, we needed one human for every turtle to help. We needed every person to be a turtle hero.” Volunteer programs through Turtle Guardians include Nest Sitters, Wetland Watchers, Tunnel Assessors and Road Researchers and offer a variety of ways for people to get involved depending on where they live, and what their interests and available time are. A new volunteer program, Turtle Crossing Guards, is deemed an essential service by provincial government regulations, and able to run during the pandemic, with safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in place.

Alternatively, for those who can donate financial support rather than time, a GoFundMe has been set up to help pay for high-visibility vests, signage that alerts drivers to known turtle crossing paths which has been arranged in partnership with the Haliburton County roads department, silt fencing, and magnets for cars of those doing research from the road, to help other drivers know they are slow-moving. At press time, $2,400 of a $4,000 goal had been raised. To help donate to the Turtle Guardians program, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/turtle-guardians-saving-grace-safe-crossing. To volunteer, get involved or for more information on Turtle Guardians, visit http://www.turtleguardians.com. If you spot an injured turtle, record its exact location, place it in a dry, warm ventilated container and call your nearest rehabilitation centre. In Haliburton County, call Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary at 705-286-1173, or for severe injury in any area call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre at 705-741-5000.

Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Minden Times