By Kristin Rushowy
Locals in Long Point fundraised and helped conduct research on dangerous area of causeway
For too long, it was the road to ruin for wildlife in the area each year – including a number of at-risk species of turtles and snakes – and locals were upset at the carnage along the Long Point Causeway.
An estimated 10,000 animals were dying annually on the 3.6-kilometre, two-lane stretch at a Lake Erie peninsula, making it the fourth worst in the world for turtles.
So citizens pushed, and fundraised, for a solution – securing a total of $2.7 million – to experiment with side-of-the-road fencing and culverts.
Their efforts began 10 years ago, and culminated last week with a final research paper they worked on with experts that was published in a wildlife journal.
“We moved at turtle speed,” joked Rick Levick, who led the Long Point Causeway Project and co-authored the paper. “But the job we’ve done, and the amount of success we’ve had reducing turtle mortality on the road has been pretty substantial.”
The area, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve because of its rich biodiversity, has been on the radar of wildlife officials for decades because of the risk the causeway posed.
“The turtles and snakes move back and forth, and get hit on the road – it’s not a hugely busy road but we’re talking about turtles, so they aren’t moving very fast,” Levick said.
A feasibility study showed fencing could be used to divert the creatures, and culverts were created to allow passage back and forth among their habitats in the Long Point Bay and the wetlands, he added.
“Not a lot of people are doing this,” he said. “We had to forge ahead and figure it out as we went along.”
In Ontario, the government recently banned the hunt of the threatened snapping turtles to help the population rebound.
While experts say any measure helps, road mortality continues to be their number one killer.
Four years ago, lead study author Chantel Markle, of McMaster University’s biology department, came on board, examining the mortality data and tracking where the turtles were in the marsh, where they were moving and how to best protect them. Every year, she said, the team learned something new and improved on the project.
In total, they installed 6,000 metres of fencing and created 12 culverts with the funds, provided in part by Environment Canada and the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The American organization, which works to sustain the Great Lakes on both sides of the border, pledged $300,000 (U.S.).
At first, Levick said researchers weren’t sure if the turtles “were going to take the hint and use the culverts” or so-called “eco-passages,” constructed with the help of Norfolk County.
“We installed cameras at the culvert entrances, and sure enough, they did” – along with mice and other wildlife in the wetlands too small to get over the 122-centimetre high fence.
The changes they made reduced road deaths by roughly 30 to 90 per cent.
“It was really quite astounding,” Levick added. “We had no idea what the effect could be, but to get to that amount was pretty amazing.”
Problem areas still exist where fencing is partial – where it reaches private property – and in fact was found to be no better than areas without fencing.
A variety of materials was used, depending on how windy or prone to flooding each section was, including special aqua-netting and recycled plastic. The fencing is to remain up year-round.
“There were eureka moments and slap-your-head moments” during the project, Levick said. At one point, motion sensors were used to monitor the turtles’ use of the culverts, but the reptiles move too slowly to set them off.
Instead, researchers opted for time-lapse photography at every tunnel entrance, “then we were looking at hundreds of photos to say ‘hey, there’s a turtle there.'”
The community also began a public education campaign and put up a highly visible electronic board from May to September warning drivers to watch out.
© 2017 Torstar Corporation