HOULTON, Maine — In nature, turtles can live past the age of 100, and they’ve been on this earth for more than 200 million years. But some species have been threatened by a comparatively much more recent threat — getting hit by cars on the roadways.
That’s why Maine Audubon seeks volunteers for the Maine Turtle Roadkill Survey, to find stretches of road across the state that have a high risk of turtles being victims of roadkill. The project is done in coordination with the Maine departments of Transportation and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“We have the ability to make a real change with the data that comes out of this,” said Sarah Haggerty, a conservation biologist with Maine Audubon. “It’s really empowering in that way.”
In the library of Houlton Middle/High School, Haggerty, together with Derek Yorks from Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, presented to more than a dozen local residents wishing to become volunteers for collecting data from designated road routes and how to identify specific species.
“Today, turtles are more threatened, as far as we know, than they have ever been,” Yorks said. He said that globally, more than 50 percent of turtle species face the prospect of extinction, mainly due to human activity. “Like many things these days when it comes to big problems, it’s a global issue.”
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The project will take place between May and September, the summer months when turtles are more likely to be active. Surveyors will be asked to walk along road areas where Audubon has deemed local turtle populations to be at most risk of roadkill, determined through analysis using geographic information system, or GIS, mapping. They will document all found instances of turtle crossing or roadkill as well as any other animals seen crossing.
Data may be collected using either paper forms, which are then submitted, or using iNaturalist, a mobile app where citizen scientists and biologists can upload and map out observations of nature and share them with others. Surveyors will also receive supplies such as reflective vests, rulers to show scale in photos and Ziploc bags for collecting turtle pieces found on the side of the road.
Haggerty said the data collected will be shared with the Maine DOT, which looks at the roadkill data when planning maintenance work, and then tries to incorporate ways to assist with passage, such as crossing signs, fencing and upsizing culvert pipes. She cited a particular example of a tunnel built to allow safe passage of salamanders in Massachusetts to show how much can be done thanks to the surveys.
Seven turtle species are found in Maine, with four of those being considered either endangered, threatened or of special concern: the eastern box turtle, the Blanding’s turtle, the spotted turtle and the wood turtle.
Already from previous years, surveyors have gathered more than 700 individual observations from 45 different people, with more than 200 recording instances of turtle species, either living or dead. But data remains scarce for turtle locations in Aroostook County.
“This is our third year of doing this, and we always get a lot of interest, but we have had so many people sign up for this one,” said Haggerty “That’s fine with me. The more people who are thinking about it, the better.”