Ontario’s ‘Ecopassages’ Protect Threatened Turtles From Becoming Roadkill
A stretch of roadway in Canada once routinely killed 10,000 animals in vehicle mishaps over a single year. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen there any more — at least not to the same extent. And when you know the reason, you’ll wonder why we’re not preventing roadkill everywhere.
The Long Point Causeway, near Lake Erie, is a two-lane road that passes through a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Drivers traveling along a 2-and-a-quarter mile stretch of this road had been responsible for hitting and killing more than 100 species of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds. Some of those poor creatures were rare or threatened.
This part of Long Point Causeway stands between the wetlands of Big Creek National Wildlife Area and Long Point Bay. The critical portion of the causeway once was considered one of the worst anywhere for roadkill incidents.
The danger was particularly acute for turtles in the area. Species such as Blanding’s turtles, northern map turtles, snapping turtles and midland painted turtles, among others, live and breed in this area. As slow movers, any time they crossed the causeway they risked death for a longer time than most other animals.
In addition, female turtles frequently used the road’s gravel shoulders to make their nests. Turtle hatchlings faced almost certain doom when they popped out of their shells with cars whizzing past.
In 2003, this section of the causeway became the fourth worst turtle mortality site in the world. Only two sites in Florida and one in Montana were more dangerous for turtles.
But fortunately, that’s no longer true, because a few key decisions made a huge difference.
A 10-year community-instigated plan began to take shape in 2008, according to a new study published in the journal “Wildlife Society Bulletin” by researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. The project initially received its funding from local groups, and later the Ontario government, the Canadian government and a U.S. environmental foundation.
All told, the Long Point Causeway Improvement Project spent $2.7 million CDN to resolve the roadkill problem. Yes, an expensive effort, but the study came away with key findings that any other jurisdiction or municipality can now put into practice.
Why not just throw up a few signs and be done with it?
As it turns out, this effort takes more than that to be successful. Will signs work at all? Yes, if they’re handled in a certain way.
“We’ve learned that if you install a ‘Turtles Crossing’ sign and leave it there all year, people eventually stop noticing it – it just blends into the background,” said Rick Levick, a local resident and project coordinator, in a press release. “Instead we install a large electronic message board at the beginning of spring warning drivers to watch for turtles on the road. We now leave the sign up from May until September and it has been much more effective.”
The Long Point Causeway Improvement Project led the way in determining effective solutions for reducing vehicle/animal mishaps on the road. In addition to creative signage, here’s what did the trick:
- Installing “ecopassages” constructed under the causeway to allow turtles, snakes and other animals to move naturally from one side of he causeway to the other
- The eco passages included 12 diversely sized “turtle tunnels” — small, medium and large terrestrial and aquatic culverts
- Culvert design made of a polymer-concrete material that provides the light and warmth turtles want in order to encourage them to enter — they didn’t like regular concrete!
- Fencing off most of the causeway to force animals to use the eco passages
- Where fencing needed to be interrupted, creation of U-shaped fence ends to point turtles back toward safety instead of letting them wander toward the road
“At many stages during the project, we have found ourselves at the leading edge of the both the science and technology in this field,” said Levick. “For example, we have experimented with a number of different types of fencing materials and fence designs to come up with solutions that are effective in the different environments found along the causeway.”
The decade spent working on this project paid big dividends. Today, there are 89 percent fewer turtles attempting to cross the roadway. Snake crossings are down 28 percent. Of course, animals still end up on the road, but now more people stop to help them cross than they did before.
“The success story documented in our study is very important because it offers a model that can be used and adapted in other areas where road mortality threatens important wetlands biodiversity,” said Scott Gillingwater, a “species at risk” biologist with the Upper Thames Valley Conservation Authority, who participated in the investigation.
Why can’t we begin doing something similar across America and around the world?
In the U.S. alone, our vehicles run down one to two million animals every year. And those are only the animals which are actually reported because of the need to file an insurance claim. Undoubtedly, there are millions more small animals crushed on our roads.
Now we know how to stop these needless deaths. Yes, it will take money and effort, but isn’t the end result well worth it? After all, the initiative could prevent both human and wildlife deaths.