This is a perilous time of year for turtles. Year after year in late spring, female turtles haul themselves up out of their lakes, ponds, and wetlands to find a place to nest on land. Many of those turtles will cross roads in the process, and some will not make it to the other side. Because turtles are long-lived species that mature slowly and have fairly low reproductive outputs, the survival and longevity of adults, especially females, is critical to the survival of populations. So the fact that roadkill disproportionately affects mature females means that for some populations, only losing a few turtles per year due to vehicle strikes can tilt the balance toward gradual extirpation (localized extinction). In many cases, roads are the number one greatest threat to turtle populations, such as the case with Blanding’s Turtles in the northeast where some populations are entirely boxed in by major highways and turtles are physically incapable of surviving the journey across pavement given current traffic levels.
So what should you do when you see a turtle on a road? The answer is simple. Help it cross the road in whatever direction it was headed if you can do so safely. In some cases, the direction the turtle is headed may seem like a bad idea to you, but turtles are quite stubborn and are usually trying to get somewhere specific, so redirecting the turtle, or worse yet, moving it to a new location, can result in the turtle either crossing the road again or crossing many more roads in an attempt to get back. While it can be difficult, please fight the urge to relocate the turtle to a new habitat that you think will be safer. For some species, that new habitat will not be appropriate, and most turtles have very strong navigational skills and will try to get back home after being moved.
An analogy I find helpful is to think of turtles as senior citizens needing help crossing a road. Would you put someone’s grandma in the back of your car and then drop her off in a pond at the other end of town so she won’t cross the road again? Of course not. She needed help crossing the road, not a new home. Even if they do choose to stay at that new site, one study showed that relocated Painted Turtles greater than four years of age had a very difficult time learning where to forage and overwinter and had much lower survival rates, suggesting that turtle brains become hardwired to their native home ranges and cannot easily learn how to survive elsewhere (I liken that to adult humans trying to learn a second language for the first time in their 50s…. not so easy after certain pathways in the brain shut down). If a turtle absolutely must be moved (ie: it was found in a downtown area well away from a park or natural area), it should be moved the bare minimum distance to water (if the species is aquatic) or wooded/open habitat (if the species is terrestrial), ideally no more than 500 meters from where it was found. If nothing like that exists within 500 meters, contact your state’s fish and wildlife department for guidance. It may also be worth looking up a list and photos of native turtles in your area as it may be an escaped pet not native to the region, in which case, fish and wildlife is still your best best for guidance.
You may encounter turtles that are too large and bitey for many people to handle safely. Common Snapping Turtles, for example, are one of the species most frequently seen on roads in the northeast and can deliver powerful bites. On land, they are quite defensive and will turn to face approaching threats. This video has some great tips on how to move snapping turtles off roads, but you should use your best judgement in determining if you can attempt doing so safely.
Sadly, you are also likely to find turtles that have already been hit by a car and are badly injured. Some will be past the point of saving, but for others there is hope. While turtles can survive some pretty horrific injuries, they do sometimes need medical attention, however the availability of rehabilitators varies a lot from state to state, as do protocols from one state agency to another. If you find an injured turtle, the best thing to do is, again, to contact your state fish and wildlife department or a nearby rehabilitator and ask for guidance. You may need to leave the turtle as-is, but hopefully someone can take the turtle in to rehabilitate or determine if the turtle can survive on its own. Attempting to treat the animals on your own may be in violation of state law and could put the turtle at risk of picking up a captive pathogen that it can then spread to the wild after release (such as Ranavirus, which can cause high mortality in wild turtle populations). On two occasions in Vermont we have successfully rehabilitated injured turtles by repairing their shells, but we did so in close coordination with VT Fish and Wildlife and skilled reptile rehabilitators.
Over time, as self-driving cars become the norm and wildlife underpasses are integrated into roadway designs, we are optimistic that the issue of turtle roadkill (and that of other species) will one day drop off the list of top conservation concerns in some areas, but for many species and populations that day will not come soon enough. So please, be attentive, help turtles when you can, and while I am disheartened that I even need to say this, don’t steal turtle crossing signs from roadways. Those signs are a conservation tool, not a dorm room decoration. And when you do see turtles on roads, we encourage you to take a picture and send it in to your state wildlife agency or reptile and amphibian atlas. Knowing where turtle crossing hotspots are is the first step in determining where wildlife underpasses will do the most good.