By David Dishneau
July 31, 2006
-- Why do turtles cross the road?
Susan Hagood can tell you -- but she'd rather stop them from becoming
Miss Hagood, a wildlife specialist with the Humane Society of the United
States, is marking the first anniversary of a society project aimed at
saving Eastern box turtles by routing them through storm-water culverts
beneath a woodland road in Western Maryland.
She and volunteer Mary Jo Bartles designed the $4,000 project after Miss
Bartles counted six squashed turtles in 2004 along about a mile of
pavement near her home on South Mountain. Although other forms of
wildlife also are killed on the road, Miss Bartles was moved by the
thought of slow-moving turtles unable to scurry away from approaching
"It's just heartbreaking that they can't do anything about it but watch
that tire come," she said.
She tried placing "turtle crossing" signs, but most were quickly stolen.
So Miss Bartles, Miss Hagood and two dozen others spent four weekends in
April 2005 installing 1.7 miles of silt fencing along both sides of the
road. The tough, black fabric zigzags through the woods, shin-high,
anchored by wooden stakes and large metal staples that discourage
burrowing beneath the fence.
Much of the land is state forest -- part of the South Mountain
Recreation Area, where Miss Bartles works as an administrator -- but
five private landowners also agreed to participate.
The fences direct critters to two small culverts with football-sized
openings. Mounted to the ceiling of each culvert, just inside an
opening, is a 35mm auto-focus camera triggered by an infrared monitor
that detects motion and heat. Any living creature that goes in gets
photographed: mice, chipmunks, snakes, spiders and turtles -- but there
aren't many of the latter.
Of more than 120 creatures whose photos were snapped last year in the
culvert, three were brown-and-yellow box turtles. That's not many, Miss
Hagood acknowledged, "but the number grows in importance when you take
into account that every box turtle is vital for the future of its
Box turtles live long but are slow breeders. Miss Hagood said it takes
females about eight years to reach sexual maturity, and they lay five or
six eggs a year. Most don't reach adulthood, and those that do must
contend with roads, habitat loss to development and people who take them
home as pets.
The loss of just three adult turtles from a population of 100 could doom
a colony, Miss Hagood said, citing research by Towson University
professor Richard A. Seigel.
In a paper presented at a Humane Society workshop in 2004, Mr. Seigel
wrote, "Even small changes in the survival of individuals in a
population can lead to the gradual disappearance or extirpation of a
Crossing roads also is important to a population's survival, Miss Hagood
said. "Maybe for a female, there's good nesting habitat on the other
side. Maybe there's an abundance of fruiting shrubs they like to visit
when they're ripe."
After the fence was installed last year, Miss Bartles counted just one
road-killed turtle on the same stretch of pavement where six had died
the previous year.
"I think going from six to one is great," she said.
Miss Hagood said this is the only such project targeting Eastern box
turtles, a species not listed as rare or endangered in Maryland. A
similar project built by the Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance Inc. near
Tallahassee, Fla., has safely channeled more than 8,500 turtles under
U.S. 27 since 2000, according to the group's Web site,