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See a turtle on the road? Help it live another day

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A turtle stands beside a road near Rice Lake in Breezy Point, Minn.,
A turtle stands beside a road near Rice Lake in Breezy Point, Minn., on Friday, June 14.
Courtesy of Deanne Trottier

For 56 years, the tourist town of Nisswa in the Brainerd Lakes Area has been hosting an unusual event on Wednesday summer afternoons: Turtle racing.

Kids and adults stand inside a painted yellow circle filled with bright blue buckets. They set their turtles on the ground and try to get them to move by cheering them on or splashing water on their shells.

Some of the reptiles scurry toward the finish line. But some have other ideas.

At this week's race, the turtle 6-year-old Lucia Windham and 4-year-old Caleb Spillum were racing didn't move at all: It pulled its head and limbs far inside its shell, and just sat there.

"He's scared," Windham declared.

Shyla Ahlers, 9, and Kyra Ahlers, 5, get ready to race their turtles.
Shyla Ahlers, 9, left, and Kyra Ahlers, 5, of Mankato, get ready to race their turtles at the Nisswa, Minn. turtle races on Wednesday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

In the wild, that maneuver is a great defense mechanism. But when the turtle is trying to cross a road, it can be fatal.

That's why there always seem to be a lot of dead turtles on Minnesota roads this time of year. Most are probably female.

June is nesting season for turtles, and females are looking for a place to lay their eggs. But roads can be a deadly obstacle.

In recent weeks, "it's just been an explosion of nesting turtle activity," said Erica Hoaglund, a nongame wildlife specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "It's kind of amazing."

In early summer, female turtles crawl up out of lakes and wetlands to find a place to lay their eggs, Hoaglund said. Some species, like the Blanding's turtle, will travel for miles.

"We're honestly not always sure what they're looking for," she said.

Once they find the perfect spot, the females dig a hole, lay their eggs and cover them up. Then they head back to the water, leaving their hatchlings to fend for themselves. It's a dangerous journey. 

"Unfortunately, there's a big uptick in road mortality this time of year," she said.

There are a few reasons that happens: Humans have built roads that cut through turtle habitat, like wetlands, Hoaglund said. And then, there's that weird coping mechanism turtles have.

"They tuck all their limbs and heads inside their shell and sit there and wait for the danger to go away," Hoaglund said. "Which is not a good approach, when it's cars."

Wildlife rehabilitators have noticed an increase this year in the number of turtles brought in with cracked shells after being struck by vehicles, the DNR said.

Turtles cross the track at the Nisswa turtle races.
Turtles cross the track at the Nisswa turtle races Wednesday. The races take place each Wednesday afternoon during the summer.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The species most often crossing the road here in Minnesota are painted turtles, with bright orange undersides, and snapping turtles, with huge, lumpy shells and prehistoric faces.

All told, Minnesota has nine different species of turtles, according to the DNR. Two of them, Blanding's and wood turtles, are listed as threatened.

Globally, turtle populations are imperiled because of habitat loss, pollution —- and hazardous roads.

In the wild, not many predators can kill an adult turtle, thanks to their hard shells. So turtle populations aren't adapted to a large loss of female adults. 

"There's so long-lived, so slow to reproduce, so slow to reach sexual maturity, that they have a really hard time recovering from losses like that," she said. "So unfortunately, we think the prognosis for turtles in general is not great in the world."

But there are ways humans can help turtles survive. 

The DNR is experimenting with ways to provide turtles a safe passage over or under roads, like a tunnel or a bridge. They're also using fences to keep turtles away from roads.

Hoaglund said if you do see a turtle crossing, slow down and avoid hitting it, if possible. And without putting your own safety at risk, you can help it across by moving the turtle off the road in the same direction it was traveling.

With most species of turtles, Hoaglund advises to pick up "like a hamburger," with one hand on each side.

Saving snapping turtles is a little trickier. Hoaglund said if you're feeling brave, you can grab one back leg and put a hand under its belly, or maybe just use a shovel to scoop it out of harm's way.

"You want to stay away from the mouth," she said. "And they can reach about halfway back. They have very long necks."

In any case, be careful. Law enforcement officials don't advise motorists to swerve or stop on a highway for any animal, said Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Gordon Shank. Drivers who see an animal on the highway should call the State Patrol.

State trooper Ben Barker helped a turtle found on a highway to safety.
State trooper Ben Barker helped a turtle found on Hwy. 212 on June 6, 2019, to safety. The Minnesota State Patrol warns that animals in the road can cause crashes and traffic jams and should be removed to keep everyone safe.
Courtesy of Minnesota State Patrol

"We'll try to do what we can to make sure everyone's safely able to travel through, and hopefully get the animal out of harm's way as well," he said. 

How to help turtles cross the road: Four things you can do

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers some tips for motorists who want to stop and help a turtle crossing the road:

1) Don't put yourself or others in danger. Pull off the road and turn on your hazard lights. Watch for approaching traffic. If you're on a busy highway, don't stop. Contact the Minnesota State Patrol instead.

If you decide to stop to help a turtle on less busy road, make sure it's a safe spot, said Benton County Sheriff Troy Heck.

"Even though we're concerned about the turtles, we don't want to see people getting hurt," he said.

2) If the turtle can cross the road without help, let it. Excessive handling by humans can disrupt turtles' normal behavior.

3) If it's necessary to move the turtle, handle it gently. 

For all turtle species except snappers and softshells: Grasp the turtle along the shell edge near the midpoint of its body. Move the turtle to the edge of the road in the same direction it was traveling. Don't try to "help" by moving the turtle to a lake or pond.

Snapping turtles and spiny softshells are aggressive and can bite. Grab them by one rear leg while supporting its belly. You can also use a snow shovel to move it, or give it a stick to bite, then drag it to the edge of the road. Never pick them up by the tail, which can damage their spinal cord.

4) Document your finding to help the DNR track crossing and high mortality areas by filling out a form.