Turtles need help when the rubber hits the road in the spring

Delaware’s turtles are coming out of hibernation and will soon be crossing roads as they search for nesting sites and, in some cases, make the journey from wintering habitats to summer haunts. The species Delawareans are most like to see on the road are box turtles, snapping turtles, spotted turtles and, in coastal areas, diamondback terrapins.

On a 6.3-mile stretch of road through Delaware Seashore State Park, as many as 100 turtles per year were being hit by vehicles until the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation and volunteers began working to protect them by using fencing, signs and education. In other locations, turtles have not been so lucky.

Turtles need our help. Road mortality, habitat loss and alteration, collection for the pet trade and diseases all threatened native turtle populations. Although some species can seem very common, their numbers are often slowly declining, leaving us with a false sense of security for their future.

For example, box turtles can live 60 or more years. Because of their impressive longevity, adults can be seen long after reproduction as stopped. Over time, the older turtles die and, with no young turtles to replace them, the population disappears altogether.

Here’s what you can do to help:

1) Road Mortality

• Drive with care. If you can safely do so, move turtles found on or near the road in the direction they’re headed. Watch out for turtles soaking in potholes on back roads. Even if you find a turtle on a dangerous road, do not move it to a far away “safer” location. Many turtle species have homing abilities and may travel long distances to return to their familiar home ranges.

• Mow with care. When mowing your lawn, look out for turtles, especially at dawn or dusk. Walk the area to be mowed first to move turtles out of harm’s way. Either mow often and keep your lawn short or set your mower blades at their highest setting. Better yet, plant native, non-grass plants and watch all the wildlife your yard will attract safely!

• Plant dense roadside buffers, such as evergreens or any thick native hedge, to help keep turtles from crossing a road.

• Wash your hands after handling turtles to guard against salmonella.

• It is always best to leave turtles where you found them. Even sick or slightly injured box turtles should be left in the wild. Turtles are surprisingly resilient to damage and disease. If left alone, they might be able to heal themselves. However, if a turtle appears greatly injured, it can be given to a licensed rehabilitator or veterinarian. Note the precise location where the turtle was found (street address or landmarks). This will be important information when the turtle is released. Many turtles have a strong homing instinct and need to be released as close as possible to where they were found.

You can contact the following rehabilitators for help with injured turtles:

• Cathy Martin (Kent County, Smyrna area): (302) 674-9131

• Mick McLaughlin (Kent County, Dover area): (302) 735-4675

• Hilary Taylor (New Castle County, Bear area): (302) 834-4604

• Bonnie Kruch (New Castle County, Townsend area): (302) 378-4761

2) Habitat Loss and Alteration

• Support local conservation organizations that preserve and protect natural resources (see http://www.eco-usa.net/orgs/de.shtml for a list of organizations in Delaware) and be active in land use planning decisions in the area.

• Protect and promote turtle habitat on your own land. Minimize amount of your property that you convert to lawn or pavement.

• Provide shelter areas such as brush and leaf piles, but keep them away from roads.

• Leave leaf litter and fallen woody debris on the forest floor.

• Do not burn large areas or brush piles during peak activity times for turtles.

• Protect wet soils such as small wetlands and keep or provide sources of food such as wild blackberries, wild strawberries, and an assortment of insects and fungi.

• Don’t allow dogs and cats to roam free in areas where turtles and their nests may be found.

• Eliminate or severely limit the use of pesticides and herbicides. These reduce the sources of food available to turtles.

3) Collection For Pets:

• Leave turtles in their natural habitat. Enjoy seeing them in the wild and count it a privilege. Help ensure that future generations can see them in the wild. Don’t move them to other areas.

• Taking turtles from the wild to be kept as pets is never a good idea. Delaware law prohibits collection of native wildlife (go to http://www.state.de.us/research/AdminCode/title7/ and click Division of Fish and Wildlife for more information). Delawareans are permitted to have as pets one individual of what are considered common species.

• However, caring for wildlife can be much more difficult than it seems. For example, box turtles generally use several acres as their “home range” in the wild; this is not easy for most homeowners to provide.

• In addition to needing large exclosures to mimic their natural habitat, turtles are susceptible to diseases that can be difficult for humans to treat.

• Since they are so long-lived, keeping one as a pet is a long-term commitment; 40 years or longer in the case of the box turtle.

• Since turtles kept in captivity, especially when housed with other reptiles, can pick up diseases that could devastate wild populations, Delaware code prohibits release of animals kept in captivity longer than 30 days without a special permit.

• So, even though it’s lawful to have ONE box (or snapping, painted, red-belly musk or mud turtle), it is NOT recommended.

The spotted turtle and the federally threatened bog turtle are not common and cannot be kept without a permit.

If you know someone is illegally collecting, selling or possessing native wildlife, please call the

Division of Fish and Wildlife’s toll free Operation Game Theft hotline at (800) 292-3030.