May 16, 2014

Road Signs To Help Maine's Endangered Turtles

May through July in Maine is a critical period when Maine?s female turtles undertake risky overland forays to reach nesting areas. During this time, turtles often cross roads, sometimes with fatal consequences. In response, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) and The Nature Conservancy are cooperating to install new road signs in addition to previously installed signs warning motorists of endangered turtle road crossing locations in the towns of Wells, South Berwick and York with the goal of reducing collisions with two of the states rarest species.

?A small change, like driving just a little slower, can make a big difference for these turtles,? said Jonathan Bailey of The Nature Conservancy. ?These signs are in places where we know these rare species are on the move. Making people aware can save turtles.?

Spotted and Blanding?s turtles, both protected under Maine?s Endangered Species Act, have seen much of their freshwater wetland habitat destroyed or degraded. Now, as human population densities and rates of development increase in southern Maine road mortality is becoming an ever-increasing threat. The turtle?s shell is its signature adaptation that has served to protect adults from most predators for millions of years; however it is no match for a car?s tire. Both Blanding?s and Spotted Turtles are extremely long-lived animals that take a minimum of 7 (Spotted) to 14 (Blanding?s) years to reach reproductive age. This coupled with low hatchling success places a premium on adult survivorship. In fact, recent population analyses of several freshwater turtle species indicate that as little as 2-3% additive annual mortality of adults is unsustainable, leading to local population extinction. Simply put, there is probably no group of organisms in Maine for which roads represent a more serious threat to long-term population viability than turtles, and no place more threatening than southern York County where road density and traffic volumes peak.

A cooperative study by the University of Maine?s Wildlife Ecology Department and MDIFW has identified high-density rare turtle areas where road-crossing hotspots are located in southern Maine. Now, with the assistance of the Maine Department of Transportation, the Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Coalition, and local towns, state biologists are installing temporary yellow warning signs in strategic locations to alert motorists to the possible presence of turtles on the roadway. The signs will only be deployed seasonally, coinciding with the spring and summer period when overland turtle movements are greatest, thus helping to maximize the signs impact by reducing ?sign fatigue? by local commuters.

MDIFW requests that motorists encountering one of the roadside turtle signs reduce their speed and increase their vigilance for potential road-crossing turtles. Should a driver come across a turtle on the road and care to help, state biologists advise pulling over and moving the turtle to the side of the road it was headed, if it is safe to do so. If just a few rare turtles can be saved annually from a roadkill fate, it is believed the road signs will have contributed to the recovery of these declining species.

For more information about Maine?s turtles and work by MDIFW to survey and protect them, please contact wildlife biologists Derek Yorks (Bangor research office), Phillip deMaynadier (Bangor research office), or Scott Lindsay (Gray Region A office). Funding for this project comes primarily from the Loon Conservation License Plate and donations to the state?s Chickadee Check-off. Additional research support was provided by the Maine Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Nature Conservancy, and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.