Turtle population declining due to many factors

Turtle population declining due to many factors

A snapping turtle crosses a local parking lot. The area’s turtle population is on the decline, say experts, but there are ways residents can help the situation. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)

SMITHFIELD – In May and June every year, native turtles face increased dangers as pregnant females search for a nesting place for offspring, often crossing roadways to find one.

Roads and developments are parting turtle habitats, causing turtles to travel greater distances and cross roads seeking food, water, and nesting grounds. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management states that the turtle population of Rhode Island is declining because of relentless habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as removal, and poaching

Louis Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said people remove turtles for many reasons, but it should only be done to escort the animal from danger.

He said, for example, the box turtle lives its whole life in a one-mile radius. Perrotti said a person may find a turtle and decide to move it to a “safer environment,” but in reality the turtle will become lost, unable to locate its familiar food sources, and most likely die.

“They just walk and walk and walk, looking for something familiar,” Perrotti said. Searching for home, turtles face starvation, exhaustion, over-heating and possibly crossing more dangerous roads, he said.

In other cases, people bring turtles home to keep as a pet, stopping the population growth in its tracks. Captive turtles should not return to the wild, Perrotti warned.

The spotted, wood, northern diamond-backed terrapin, and eastern box turtles are protected animals, which means possession of the animal is illegal without a permit. It is also illegal to sell native wildlife in Rhode Island.

“There is a high demand in the pet trade for our turtles,” Perrotti said, adding that a wood turtle could fetch from $500 to $1,000.

Besides human interactions, other animals, including skunks, birds, snakes, bullfrogs and raccoons, prey on turtles heavily. Combined with low reproduction rates, turtles have a multitude of factors working against their population.

“It’s a synergy of things threatening turtles,” he said.

Perrotti’s comments jibe with local reports from Smithfield residents that turtles are disappearing from local ponds.

On the RIDEM’s species of greatest conservation need list are the spotted, wood and the eastern box turtle. Box turtles are also on the state “concern” list.

Criteria for the list in Rhode Island include being federally or state endangered, declining and/or vulnerable species, a species with small “at-risk” populations, and other situations.

Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan community liaison Amanda Freitas said the state’s action plan is made to help recover declining species, and limit threats to those species and their habitats.

“Part of the goals of state Wildlife Action Plans is to keep common species common, so (the list) includes not just rare species, but those that may become rare if current trajectories continue,” Freitas said.

Animals on the “concern” list are not yet endangered or threatened at this time, but are listed due to rarity or vulnerability, and may warrant a more severe status in the future.

The eastern painted, the stinkpot and snapping turtles also call northern Rhode Island home, but are not on the species of greatest conservation need list.

If a turtle is found on a roadway, shoo the turtle in the direction it was headed, Perrotti recommends. Turtle shells have nerves, so gently nudge them along, careful to not place oneself in danger, he said.

Perrotti’s bottom line: “Don’t take them home, don’t collect them.”

In Rhode Island, eight species of turtles are protected, four of which are marine species listed as threatened or endangered by the state or federal government: the loggerhead turtle, the Atlantic green turtle, the leatherback turtle, and Kemp’s ridley turtle. Another of the eight lives in brackish waters, the state-endangered northern diamond-backed terrapin.