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Help turtles cross the highway

This time of year in Minnesota, turtles can often be seen attempting to cross roadways to and from nesting sites.

If you can do so safely, stop and give them a hand. The slow-moving beasts, which predate dinosaurs by several million years, need all the help they can get these days.

Roadway mortality is believed to be a major factor in turtle population declines throughout the United States, according to the Minnesota DNR.

Here’s what you need to know about helping turtles, according to the DNR:

Don’t put yourself or others in danger. Simply pulling off the road and turning on your hazard lights may alert other drivers to slow down. Be aware of your surroundings and traffic.

Avoid excessive handling. While wanting to inspect turtles closely is understandable, excessive handling can disrupt normal behavior. Prolonged examination of turtles should therefore be limited to only one or two individuals of each species.

Allow unassisted road crossings. When turtles can safely cross roads unaided due to a lack of oncoming traffic, allow them to do so. Observe from a distance and avoid rapid movements, as doing otherwise will often cause turtles to change direction, stop, or seek shelter within their shells.

Handle turtles gently. If necessary to pick them up, all turtles except snappers and softshells (or “leatherbacks”) which may bite when picked up, should be grasped gently along the shell edge near the mid-point of the body.

Expect the frightened turtle to empty its bladder when lifted off the ground – don’t drop them if they suddenly expel water.

Always move turtles in the same direction they were traveling in when encountered, and move them across roadways in as direct a line as possible.

Avoid the temptation to help the turtle on its journey by moving it to a nearby waterbody. Remember the phrase, “If you care, leave it there.”

Just get it off the roadway in the direction it was going, otherwise it will turn around and head across the road again.

Snappers and softshells can reach around and deliver painful bites if picked up by the sides of the shell like other turtles.

Snapping turtles should NEVER be picked up by the tail! This can damage their spinal cord.

Instead, grab an aggressive turtle by one rear leg while supporting the turtle from below with your other hand. That is safe for both you and the turtle.

Or try using branches, broomsticks, snow shovels, or similar objects to prod the animals along from behind. If bitten, such objects may also be used to drag the turtles to roadway edges.

So why do the armored reptiles want to cross the road in the first place?

In Minnesota, where all turtles are mainly aquatic, overland journeys usually occur for one of three reasons:

Seasonal trips between different wetland habitats; during the annual early summer nesting migration of egg-laden females; or when newly hatched youngsters seek out the backwaters and ponds that will serve as their permanent home.

Turtles can travel many miles during a single year, and may even be found far from water; this is no need for concern. Turtles crossing roads in late-May and June are often moving to familiar nesting locations.

Helping turtles cross the road isn’t just a nice thing to do. When it comes to helping females with eggs, the DNR says human help can be vital to preserving regional turtle populations.

And what’s a Minnesota lake without its turtles?