Project steers turtles off roads

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BOONSBORO, Md. — Why do turtles cross the road?

Susan Hagood can tell you — but she’d rather stop them from becoming road kill.

Miss Hagood, a wildlife specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, is marking the first anniversary of a society project aimed at saving Eastern box turtles by routing them through storm-water culverts beneath a woodland road in Western Maryland.

She and volunteer Mary Jo Bartles designed the $4,000 project after Miss Bartles counted six squashed turtles in 2004 along about a mile of pavement near her home on South Mountain. Although other forms of wildlife also are killed on the road, Miss Bartles was moved by the thought of slow-moving turtles unable to scurry away from approaching vehicles.

“It’s just heartbreaking that they can’t do anything about it but watch that tire come,” she said.

She tried placing “turtle crossing” signs, but most were quickly stolen.

So Miss Bartles, Miss Hagood and two dozen others spent four weekends in April 2005 installing 1.7 miles of silt fencing along both sides of the road. The tough, black fabric zigzags through the woods, shin-high, anchored by wooden stakes and large metal staples that discourage burrowing beneath the fence.

Much of the land is state forest — part of the South Mountain Recreation Area, where Miss Bartles works as an administrator — but five private landowners also agreed to participate.

The fences direct critters to two small culverts with football-sized openings. Mounted to the ceiling of each culvert, just inside an opening, is a 35mm auto-focus camera triggered by an infrared monitor that detects motion and heat. Any living creature that goes in gets photographed: mice, chipmunks, snakes, spiders and turtles — but there aren’t many of the latter.

Of more than 120 creatures whose photos were snapped last year in the culvert, three were brown-and-yellow box turtles. That’s not many, Miss Hagood acknowledged, “but the number grows in importance when you take into account that every box turtle is vital for the future of its population.”

Box turtles live long but are slow breeders. Miss Hagood said it takes females about eight years to reach sexual maturity, and they lay five or six eggs a year. Most don’t reach adulthood, and those that do must contend with roads, habitat loss to development and people who take them home as pets.

The loss of just three adult turtles from a population of 100 could doom a colony, Miss Hagood said, citing research by Towson University professor Richard A. Seigel.

In a paper presented at a Humane Society workshop in 2004, Mr. Seigel wrote, “Even small changes in the survival of individuals in a population can lead to the gradual disappearance or extirpation of a population.”

Crossing roads also is important to a population’s survival, Miss Hagood said. “Maybe for a female, there’s good nesting habitat on the other side. Maybe there’s an abundance of fruiting shrubs they like to visit when they’re ripe.”

After the fence was installed last year, Miss Bartles counted just one road-killed turtle on the same stretch of pavement where six had died the previous year.

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