Reptiles and Amphibians need our help! In fact, all wildlife does!

Written by Steve Marks for The Egret – Issue 25 – Number 1

As springtime approaches, and everything in nature comes alive again, reptiles and amphibians are no exception! In spring, it is normal for these animals to exit the hiding spots they have hidden away in for the winter, and venture out to their foraging/breeding grounds for the warmer parts of the year, and this often requires crossing roads!

Each spring and autumn, migration to and from winter quarters mean long journeys for some animals – and shorter journeys for others. There are records of reptiles being recorded as far as 60km from their den site! In southern Ontario, movement is largely limited to wildlife by the sheer density of roads. We have the largest human population in Canada here is the deep south, so it’s not surprising that we’ve got more roadways. The statistic that is tossed around the most states that in southern Ontario, it is not possible for a terrestrial animal to travel in any direction for even 1.2 km without running into a road that seriously threatens survival. We’ve also used up most of the decent habitat for farmland, towns and highways, so the animals are sometimes forced to make unusually large movements between sites. Case in point: an endangered Blanding’s Turtle was crushed in a Tim Horton’s Drive-thru in our county!

This is where mitigation is required… better-designed roads, better-informed drivers, and just better practices are necessary if we are to see any improvement. Lessons learned already includes harsh realizations that signs alerting drivers to the plight of the local fauna are just not helping! Signs are largely ignored by drivers – sometimes intentionally (e.g. speed limit signs!).

Here in Essex County, our wildlife is “conveniently” concentrated in certain spots. This is due to the simple fact that very little natural habitat remains in our part of the country. Therefore, since effort to avoid impacting wildlife should essentially be easier in our area than in areas with more widespread natural areas, we really have no excuse! A lot of our remaining natural areas are surrounded by urban development, so we’re already supposed to be driving cautiously, for the sake of playing children, pedestrians, cyclists, etc.

So what CAN we do?

Slow down in natural areas! This is a fairly simple concept, yet people are busy, rushed, late, behind, or otherwise hurried. Life seems to be busier and busier with each passing year, but if we don’t look after natural areas, they will simply disappear. It’s not just road mortality – there are lots of issues with roads being close to nature. Driving SLOWLY and watching for animals approaching the roadway is paramount. There are active campaigns afoot to try to encourage drivers to slow down on their own in areas like Matchette Road in Windsor’s Ojibway Complex – an area known to have a very high toll on endangered wildlife.

Ecopassages are great! They can actually re-connect islands of habitat for multitudes of plants and animals, or simply connect two areas divided by a road for the sake of a single species. The problems with ecopassages are cost, space limitations, and upkeep/maintenance. Better design, better materials, better applications are sure to be developed in the coming years, but even some of the options available today are infinitely superior to what was being utilized just a few years ago! As citizens, we should be pushing our governments (local and higher) to install more of these structures as part of more routine road maintenance. We should be taking steps to improve our overall success by thinking outside the box and changing the way we do things!

Be better stewards! Most folks want to help wildlife. There are very few people out there that truly dislike nature, or don’t care whether species disappear or not. Generally speaking, people are still nice! It’s just that very few seem to know just what to do if presented with a situation involving wildlife. It’s a scary situation for some to approach a wild animal, knowing full well that if they don’t pick it up and help it across a road, its fate is uncertain at best. I assure you, anyone can be taught to safely pick up and move even a huge snapping turtle! I’ve even taught young children to do it! It does take a little extra effort to look for wildlife on road surfaces while you’re already trying to safely operate a motor vehicle, keeping the kids safe, getting to work on time, arguing with your hubby, etc. – but if you practice, you’ll get better at spotting critters on the road.

Helping wildlife across the road! The thing that tends to escape most people is to remember to think about the animal’s intention! If she’s headed west, why would you turn her to the east? That simply does NOT help! She’ll just turn around after you’re gone, and try to cross that road anyway.

Another mistake people make is to forget their own safety! A woman was hit and killed while trying to help a turtle on Highway 401 a few years ago. Please think about your own safety and the safety of any other people – including drivers – in the area. Children are taught to look both ways before crossing roads. Animals aren’t taught this – but people should know better!

Once you’ve ascertained a level of safety regarding traffic, approach the animal and decide your course of action. In most cases, all that will be required is for you to stand guard while the animal crosses safely. Standing back a fair distance so the animal isn’t concerned by your presence can help! In other cases, chasing the animal in the direction it was going can hurry the process. Sometimes there are no options besides picking it up and moving it to safety. Approaching a snake can be a big deal for some. Snakes in this part of the world are harmless except for rattlesnakes, and even those need our help crossing roads! If you’re unsure as to which type of snake you’re dealing with – simply use a stick or your car’s snow brush to coax the snake off the road. Here in Essex County, it’s safe to presume it’s a harmless snake you’re dealing with – simply pick it up and take it across the road and let it go hide in some vegetation! Frogs can just be caught up and moved in their direction of travel too. Turtles are no different. Simply pick them up and move them in the correct direction! Snapping turtles are the only turtle to cause slight hesitation as you walk towards it.

How to help a snapping turtle across the road! You don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to pick up a snapping turtle! Even children can do it! Making sure you’re safe from cars is far more challenging! When you approach the turtle, you simply immediately place a hand on its tail and don’t let go. This is how you stay safe – by keeping the bitey end away from your fingers! Once you’ve got it by the tail, simply slide your other hand underneath the belly of the turtle from behind. You’ll find a convenient handle built right in to the snapper’s body! The plastron forms a great handle to help you safely support the turtle while you take her across the road! Grab on and walk her across the road. This gives whole new meaning to “helping little old ladies across the street”, as snapping turtles get much older than people! Now, if you just can’t bring yourself to lifting her up, simply grab a stick (or snowbrush) and wiggle it in her face. She’ll bite it (defending herself from you – the horrible predator) and you can literally DRAG her across the road. This totally works! She’s a tough old bird – she just can’t take on a car!

The biggest thing we can do to help is make everyone around us care as much as we do! Teaching folks to spend time in nature will replenish our respect for it. We should be finding every way we can to undo some of the damage we’ve done, and that starts with re-connecting people with what they’ve become separated from in the first place. Nature isn’t dirty, yet folks seem to think it is! Cities are dirty. Pollution is dirty. Human practices are dirty. Nature cleans our mess up, provides us with food, oxygen and fresh water. If we don’t undo some of the damage we’ve done, we’ll be hurting for those items faster than most folks know! We need to act now – save every scrap of nature we can. It all starts with helping a little old lady across the road…

A Yellow Warbler killed on a southwestern Ontario roadway. Photo: Scott Gillingwater.
Three endangered Blanding’s turtles of a total of 8 killed on a single morning on a southwestern Ontario highway. Photo: Don Scallen.
A tiny northern brown snake trying to use a road as habitat! Photo: Chevaun Toulouse.
A young lady demonstrates how to help a snapping turtle across the road! Photo: Scott Gillingwater.