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Keeping count

Turtle casualties recorded, research to aid highway planning

Why does the turtle cross the road? While this sounds like a joke, it really isn’t.

Hundreds of turtles are run over each year on U.S. Highway 93 south of Ronan.

Painted turtles, the only native turtle species on the Flathead Reservation, cross the road because their nesting ponds are on the east side of Hwy. 93, and other parts of their life cycle take place on the west side of the highway.

A master’s thesis on painted turtle movements indicated that turtle movements are dictated by season, water temperature and search for food.

While they’re searching for food, Camel-Means said, if turtles encounter the highway, they don’t turn back; they will attempt to cross it.

Science teacher Mark Rochin and his Jobs for Montana Graduates class from Polson High School joined Whisper Camel-Means, wildlife biologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and two interns as they walked the Hwy. 93 corridor from the rest area near Bev’s Bloomers to Ninepipes on May 21. Wearing safety vests and gloves and carrying trash bags, the crew split up and searched both sides of the road for turtle carcasses.

Rochin began a turtle project when he taught science at Two Eagle River School and collected turtle remains three years in a row, from 2003 to 2005.

Recording the number of turtles per mile marker pinpoints the roadkill hotspots, Camel-Means said. Currently there are no culverts in this area, she explained.

This stretch of Hwy. 93 from about Lake’s Corner north of Ronan to Innovation Road and then from Innovation Road to Ninepipes to Red Horn Lane are the last sections of Hwy. 93 to be redone. Culverts will be installed under the highway, especially in any place where the road bisects a pond, Camel-Means said.

Even though it was a cool, misty morning, the students worked hard. One student commented that the trash bag containing turtles parts “stinks.”

The total, Rochin said, was 283 turtles in just three miles. The closest year to that was 2000, when TERS students picked up 254 pieces of turtles.

The data they collect may help save turtle lives via recommended culvert placement in highway planning.

 

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