AUGUSTA — Late May through early July in southern Maine is a critical period when female turtles undertake risky overland forays to reach nesting areas.During this time, turtles often cross roads, sometimes with fatal consequences.

In response, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) and The Nature Conservancy are cooperating to install new road signs warning motorists of endangered turtle road crossing locations in the towns of Wells, South Berwick and York with the hope of reducing collisions with two of the states rarest species.

This is the sixth year turtle crossing signs have been deployed at a few sites of high documented activity in southern Maine, though motorists throughout the state should be on the lookout for turtles crossing the road. According to MDIF&W Wildlife Biologist Jonathan Mays, many state residents have become caretakers of the turtle crossings by both calling the department each spring to report turtles on the move and then keeping a watchful eye to ensure the signs stay prominently displayed along roadways through the season.

Spotted and Blanding’s turtles, both protected under Maine’s Endangered Species Act, have seen much of their freshwater wetland habitat destroyed or degraded.  Now, as human population densities and rates of development increase in southern Maine, it is feared that road mortality is becoming an ever-increasing threat.

The turtle’s shell is its signature adaptation that has served to protect adult turtles from most predators for millions of years, however it is no match for a car’s tire.  Both Blanding’s and Spotted turtles are extremely long-lived animals that take a minimum of 7 (Spotted) to 14 (Blanding’s) years to reach reproductive age.  This coupled with low hatchling success places a premium on adult survivorship.

In fact, recent population analyses of several freshwater turtle species indicate that as little as 2-3 percent additive annual mortality of adults is unsustainable, leading to local population extinction.  Simply put, there is probably no group of organisms in Maine for which roads represent a more serious threat to long-term population viability than turtles, and no place more threatening than southern York County where road density and traffic volumes peak.

A cooperative study by the University of Maine’s Wildlife Ecology Department and MDIF&W has identified high-density rare turtle areas where road-crossing hotspots are located in southern Maine. Now, with the assistance of the Maine Department of Transportation, the Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Coalition and local towns, state biologists are installing temporary yellow warning signs in strategic locations to alert motorists to the possible presence of turtles on the roadway. The signs will only be deployed seasonally, coinciding with the spring and summer period when overland turtle movements are greatest, thus helping to maximize the signs impact by reducing “sign fatigue” by local commuters.

MDIF&W requests that motorists encountering one of the roadside turtle signs reduce their speed and increase their vigilance for potential road-crossing turtles.  Should a driver come across a turtle on the road and care to help, state biologists advise pulling over and moving the turtle to the side of the road it was headed, if it is safe to do so.  If just a few rare turtles can be saved annually from a roadkill fate, it is believed the road signs will have contributed to the recovery of these declining species.

For more information about Maine’s turtles and work by MDIF&W to survey and protect them, contact wildlife biologists Jonathan Mays (Bangor), Phillip deMaynadier (Bangor), or Judy Camuso (Gray).

Funding for this project comes primarily from the Loon Conservation License Plate and donations to the state’s Chickadee Check-off.  Additional research support was provided by the Maine Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Nature Conservancy, and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.