A truck slows down to avoid a snapping turtle as it crosses Vaughan Road in Hallowell in June. Maine Audubon and state wildlife officials are trying to map out the places where animals are most at risk. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Data gathered about wildlife roadkill in Maine over the past decade is being used to help protect animals from being killed by cars.

A Maine Audubon online database will allow people who see roadkill to report it so the group can identify hotspots, said Sarah Haggerty, a conservation biologist and geographic information system manager for the wildlife conservation organization.

The online database is part of a three-year program to identify where animals are getting hit the most and come up with a way to reduce the fatalities. It is a joint undertaking of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, Maine Audubon and University of California-Davis.

Fraser Shilling, a co-director of the Road Ecology Center at UC-Davis, said including the public is an important part of the project.

As part of the program, Shilling is helping build a new reporting system for Maine to replace one that has been in place since 2010 – the new system could be rolled out this year. All people will have to do is take a photo and upload it to the system. If the phone’s location is enabled, it will automatically be mapped. Funds for the project are generated from sales of the loon automobile license plate.

About 10 years ago, the center developed a roadkill reporting system for California, Shilling said. Maine Audubon saw the system and decided it wanted one.

Both systems were designed to allow people to report roadkill, but Maine’s also allows people to report live animals they see on the road.

Also included in the program is the Turtle Roadkill Survey.

A snapping turtle crosses a road in Hallowell. Reptiles and amphibians are especially at risk when they are leaving ponds and marshes to lay eggs in May and June. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“Citizen scientists” are recruited and trained to identify and study roads when turtles are most active, between May and September. Having the volunteers expands the geographic coverage dramatically because there is a limited number of wildlife biologists in Maine, Haggerty said.

“The (volunteer’s) role is huge,” she said.

Shilling said the program needs at least one volunteer per road for the system to work well. Maine has better coverage than California because it has more willing participants per mile, as well as funding for the program.

“Maine Audubon has actively engaged people and done trainings,” Shilling said.

The hot spots are usually places associated with water or where roads go through natural habitats like forests. Turtles are drawn to lay their eggs on the roadsides because the areas are usually flat and sandy. This puts the female turtles and the hatchlings in danger.

“A turtle’s defense mechanism is to freeze and camouflage, which does not work very well for cars,” Haggerty said.

Phillip deMaynadier, a wildlife biologist at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said turtles’ shells have evolved for millions of years to avoid mortality. Their biggest threat is predators, against which they are well-defended.

Turtles don’t reproduce until they are about 10 years old. When younger turtles are killed, the population suffers. Research suggests that if 2 percent to 3 percent of adult turtles are killed annually, the local population could go extinct, Haggerty said.

There aren’t as many hot spots in Maine for deer or moose – they can get hit almost anywhere, Shilling said.

When a bigger animal like a moose is killed, it affects the environment differently than smaller animals. A 10,000-acre wetland can probably support a small herd of about 20 moose, but 100,000 newts. If only a few moose are killed in a certain area, the population takes a hit.

“It takes a lot of nature to support a large animal and if you hit one, you’re impacting nature in a bigger way than if you hit a small animal,” Shilling said.

Small animals, however, are less visible, and the number being struck by vehicles isn’t always apparent.

One way to keep animals off roads is to build tunnels underneath them. But building tunnels can be expensive, she said. While amphibians and reptiles can tolerate tunnels, trying to funnel them through a single tunnel does not work well. There have to be multiple tunnels underneath a road.

Road signs are also important. Some animal crossing signs have lights that flash when turtles are more likely to be moving so people don’t get sign fatigue, Haggerty said.


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