Turtles’ survival teeters on decline

Proactive measures at habitat conservation needed to reverse trend and complement rescue attempts

Editor’s Note: The last week of June is traditionally the busiest time of year for turtles’ breeding activities. This piece, special to The Madawaska Valley Current, is by Chris Huggett, Retired Conservation Biologist.

My first encounter with a turtle was on Lac Bernard in West Quebec in 1969. My neighbours drove an aluminium outboard parallel to a fleeing pod of snapping turtles. One boy reached over and lifted a massive specimen into the boat. I was stunned at the reptile’s carapace. It had the diameter of a garbage can. The turtle wasted no time zeroing in on us. It snapped and hissed aggressively attempting to scale the boat’s interior. We scattered cringing into the gunnels with no escape. Finally, one boy had the presence of mind and shuffled the animal broadside into the lake using an oar. Fifty years ago this turtle species was considered common. In fact only until a couple of years ago the MNRF had an open season on snapping turtles. Today all turtles irrespective of their species are protected and classified as Species at Risk. Above: Young snapping turtle cautiously surveys Barron Canyon Road near Petawawa before crossing in early June 2023.

I have witnessed both brutal and compassionate treatment of these benign creatures. Along Quebec’s Gatineau River a cloud of bottle flies disperse as I approach the bloated carcase of a mutilated snapping turtle bludgeoned to death. Along a rural road outside Killaloe, Ontario tire tracks deviate off the centre lane where a female turtle is laying eggs. The wheels crush the reptile’s carapace leaving it comatose and semi-paralysed.

Malice, negligence, and inattention by drivers are the three killers of turtles along Ontario roads. Equally destructive is habitat degradation from both unsustainable forestry practices such as high-grading and urban sprawl in rural towns such as Barry’s Bay and Bancroft.

Yet, heroes have emerged in reaction to this existential reptilian crisis. These are defenders of these prehistoric icons:

  • The OPP officer who stops her cruiser on congested Hwy 7 near Peterborough and shuffles a 16 kg. specimen to safety.
  • A retired trucker who stalls traffic as his wife carries a Blandings turtle across Hwy 62 near Killaloe Marsh.
  • The woman driving in the opposite lane who screeches to a stop and snatches a turtle to safety … even before I can pull over to pick it up.

Luckily society’s conscience has evolved. Today successful road rescues are exercised by every segment of society. Medical staff, veterinary surgeons, volunteer drivers, concerned children … the list is endless. They are motivated by the simple universal ideals of empathy and altruism for a species teetering on collapse.

Researcher discovers large snapping turtle in June 2023 during survey along Barron Canyon Road, Petawawa

How do you rescue a turtle attempting a road crossing?

Vigilance is a prerequisite. Caution must be exercised to oncoming traffic. A reflective safety vest and pair of leather gloves are permanently stored in my vehicle for such eventualities. They should be mandatory for all drivers during the spring.

But how do you pick-up a turtle attempting a death march across a road?

Turtles are usually friendly, docile and withdraw from people, hence their universal appeal.

Grabbing a medium sized snapper on either side of the carapace above the rear legs avoids its sharp claws which are used to dig nests. Since the plastrum on the underside is small, a snapper can not retract itself into its shell. Its only defence remains its extended neck and beaked mouth. Consequently heavy individuals should be lifted from the carapace at nine and three o’clock. With adequate purchase they can spin around almost 180 degrees with uncanny speed. Gentle foot pressure on the plastrum will immobilize the turtle making it safer before picking it up. Large specimens can reach 16 kg. In this situation the turtle can be shuffled across using your feet. Never lift a turtle by the tail. Its excessive body weight can stretch and dislocate the tail’s vertebrae. Once safely off the road and pointed in the original direction of travel the turtle now heads off toward its preferred destination.

When female turtles leave wetlands to lay eggs they need a sandy or gravel substrate which is soft to excavate a subterranean cavern to encase and protect the eggs from predators. This is a long, arduous and potentially dangerous procedure. Since most soils surrounding wetlands are covered in a dense mat of roots and compacted silt, turtles frequently end up choosing a recently graded gravel road. Since a proliferation of roads have fragmented Canada’s natural landscape during the past century, they are readily encountered by turtles within a short distance. Here, speeding motorists often mistake turtles for rocks and other roadside debris. Since rural roads undergo regular grading every few weeks, eggs that are laid along the verge don’t stand a chance of hatching.

To avoid the illegal collecting of turtle eggs for human consumption or trade, the government has issued a limited number of permits to specific rehabilitators such as Haliburton’s Turtle Guardians. Here licenced staff excavate eggs which are later incubated.

A snapping turtle’s body is found compressed into soft asphalt after a failed attempt to cross in Muskoka.
A snapping turtle is  struck and killed while attempting to cross County Road 38 in Wahta, ON earlier this month.

But the question remains, what do you do if you find an injured turtle?

After placing it in a plastic container (e.g. Tupperware) with a little water for moisture, the challenge is to deliver it to a rescue/ rehab centre. If you are unable to transport it yourself phone the closest emergency number(s) at the bottom of this article.

According to Lisa Browning, an education coordinator at Peterborough’s Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, “A coordinated approach using over a 1000 dedicated volunteer drivers across Ontario transport injured turtles to the closest rehabilitation centre for emergency care and surgical intervention. In Northern Ontario volunteer pilots in Dryden fly injured turtles to medical facilities located further south. After delivered to a rehab facility the casualty is assessed, provided pain medications and re-hydrated,” Browning explained.

Once stabilized and treated — and not unlike humans — turtles must undergo physical rehabilitation before finally being released into the wild.

This complicated reactive approach to injured turtles is certainly not cheap and the major killer — habitat degradation — still remains unchecked.

Along Madawaska River above Palmer Rapids dam.

Habitat loss — a vague term to the public. What are the major social precursors?

The responsibility for the rapid decline of all non-human species rests on us. It is our behaviour, expectations and inflated sense of entitlement, “to do whatever we want with our land,” that clouds our reasoning. The regional and lower tier governments in Renfrew County fail to adopt and enforce regulations. The causes of this spiral into extinction are the clearing of trees, back-filling wetlands and unfettered development by both government and private landowners. The County of Renfrew has attempted to adopt, but later withdrawn, regulations to control these destructive practices. Public consultations are stacked with well-meaning but misguided property owners convinced that any future bylaw effecting their land equates to expropriation or government meddling. Populist ideology believes individual rights take priority over community rights. Misdirected hostility from otherwise responsible property owners is fuelled by fear campaigns from groups like the Ontario Land Owners Association(s). Sabre rattling between the County and public is reported by the media and invariably County officials retreat with tails between their legs. Municipalities breathe a sigh of relief. Bylaw officials no longer have to confront and administer constraints on the public. Status quo resumes across local governments and crossed legs return to their habitual resting place on desk tops. The result? Environmental degradation goes unchecked to the detriment of everyone and everything.

The second cause of amphibian and reptilian decline is the unprecedented influx of the urban population moving into rural Canada. They bring their historical urban baggage – a sanitized world view where comfort and convenience trump all other values. Rather than embrace the inherent natural charm of their new surroundings the urbanites incrementally begin transforming their new home into a replica of the built landscape they left behind.

This ironic transformation from a wild, rural and natural setting to a built landscape is an attempt to replace accustomed amenities lost to the city. Woodlands are cleared for improved internet reception or lawns. Wetlands are replaced by artificial ponds. Vegetation is removed in a futile attempt to reduce the bug population and increase the “view.” This oxymoron is called “improvements.” Renfrew County’s transformation from bush … to rural … and finally to suburban is the result. Who are the causalities apart from outdoor enthusiasts? Wildlife — including turtles.

Valley examples of habitat loss

The Madawaska Valley certainly doesn’t fall short with examples. Where has the backdrop to Barry’s Bay disappeared over the past 12 months? At the town’s eastern limits a landscaping and construction company has clear-cut the conifers and excavated a mountain. The pond opposite the road was completely destroyed within the past six months and replaced by a small retention basin. The red pine plantation logged and replaced with a propane storage facility. The area was a haven for painted turtles, but no more. Any municipal council with a tourism based economy that sits idle as the scenic backdrop of its town in literally excavated and trucked away is inviting economic suicide.

Grassy Bay west of Tramore drains into Round Lake Dam. Here on any spring day 50 or more basking turtles in groups of six to eight line the floating logs. But the human activity from a crowded trailer park 100 metres downstream each summer threatens their survival. On the south shore waterfront homeowners have replaced riparian habitat with manicured lawns to the water’s edge.

Bark Lake west of Barry’s Bay was the largest and least developed lake in the region, rivalling Algonquin Park’s Opeongo Lake in both size and remoteness. Formerly surrounding by crown land, Skeads Road along Bell Bay was extended off Hwy 60, and lots were subdivided and sold for waterfront homes. These new lot owners wasted no time clearing the forest down to the water when constructing their homes. Who do you think are the casualties?

Society has progressed in its reactive approach to turtles conservation, as is evident by the thousands of dedicated volunteers saving countless lives on our roads and highways. Sadly, the fundamental causes of reptilian decline from unfettered development and habitat destruction continue to escalate as the human population pushes its wanton appetite into the farthest reaches of our natural world.

Turtle rescue and rehab centres closest to Barry’s Bay

Ontario Turtle Conservation Netword (OTCN) is a joint project beween Parks Canada and the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre. It lists all rehab and educational institutions involving turtles in Ontario.

Website: www.otcn.ca Email: otcn@ontarioturtle.ca

Think Turtle Conservation Initiative,  L’Amable ON. nr. Bancroft

Tel: (647)606-9537 Email: thinkturtle@yahoo.com

OUR Turtles, Lanark County, Tay River Township

Tel: (613) 326-8878 Email: 4ourturtles@gmail.com

Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, Peterborough 

Tel: (705)741-5000 Email: info@ontarioturtle.ca

The landbetween – Turtle Guardians, Haliburton 

Tel: (705) 854-2888 Email: info@turtleguardians.ca

Credits: The author would like to sincerely thank Hannah Dodington for her assistance and photographs related to this article.

Disclaimer: Contributors to this article may, or may not, necessarily endorse its contents.


  1. John and Beth Hildebrandt

    My husband and I had a Save the Turtle afternoon a few years ago when a little turtle was crossing hwy. 62 near the Legion….traffic on both sides of the highway stopped and the little guy leisurely walk across the road!! Lotsa honking too!!!

  2. Al Best

    Thank you Chris Huggett!!! And now, in 2023, the Madawaska Valley has the opportunity to lead this beautiful part of the country into a brave new era with a new Comprehensive Bylaw. A responsible and educational approach to sell waterfront landowners on the benefits (and dare I say “stewardship responsibilites”) of natural shorelands may yet save us all. Let’s stop trying to convert the natural beauty of Algonquin Park to look like East York and Scarborough. Our grandkids are counting on us!! Did I remember to say “thanks Chris”?
    Al Best

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