Turtle Crossing in Wisconsin

Why did the turtle cross the road? Change the “why” to a “where,” and conservation biologist Andrew Badje just might be able to tell you. Through his work with the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program, Badje collects turtle road crossing data to help map populations, especially at precarious road and rail crossings.

Andrew Badje leads the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program. Credit: Andrew Badje

How and why was the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program created?

Seeing how I was coordinating a few citizen science projects and performing field work with reptiles and amphibians, I naturally fell into this project. Road mortality is a likely leading cause of turtle mortality in the state, and we saw a need to get a turtle reporting database and road mortality project underway. If we can minimize road mortality to a degree…we can begin to turn things around for turtles here and elsewhere.

We applied for and received a Partnership Program grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2011-12, and the program was started from those initial funds. The grant provides about $5k to get citizen-based monitoring projects jumpstarted throughout the state. Through the Partnership Program, the WDNR has been showing its commitment to citizen science, which in turn, gets more citizens involved in their conservation future.

Each year, after a majority of reports are in, we take time to assess the reports and vet the records we can. Vetted rare species reports are housed in the WDNR’s Natural Heritage Inventory Database. In addition, turtle road crossings throughout Wisconsin are mapped and incorporated into a format that can be easily distributed and interpreted by others. We will always be in the data accumulation phase; however, we are beginning to turn the corner by utilizing this crossing data in meaningful and effective ways.

What kind of data are you collecting?

The data we are predominantly collecting are road and railroad crossings as well as live and mortality related observation. In total, the program addresses three types of data: road crossing reports, rare and common species observations to determine site and regional distribution, and nesting locations. Biologists and property managers use these data to make more informed and effective conservation management decisions in the future. Another way we are using the program is as an education proxy to the public, which informs and empowers citizens to encourage conservation efforts in their communities.

You touched on this a little, but how do you see the data being used?

We provide as much information as we can (with the omission of rare species reports) to property managers – state, private, or public — who are willing to utilize the data for habitat restoration purposes (i.e., nest site construction/maintenance/restoration).

As far as road crossing data, we are kind of at a — no pun intended — crossroads. We’ve created a statewide map showing the distribution of all the mortality areas in Wisconsin, as well as all the crossings where people haven’t observed mortality yet. And so what we’re hoping to do with that is to continue to fill in the gaps and get more of a site-level/baseline history at any/all sites.

In the long haul, we envision WDNR liaisons having access to the crossing data and working with road maintenance agencies to find suitable and cost-effective solutions. All sides would agree that it’s more beneficial to incorporate these discussions in the pre-planning stages of road construction projects, as opposed to on the back end, which is how it primarily plays out now. We expect this vision to evolve and adapt overtime as we, in the WDNR determine how exactly we want to communicate our message going forward.

That is the goal at least, to make sure that the right people have the proper information and resources to help both the WDNR accomplish our mission of turtle conservation and so that road agencies in Wisconsin can build safe and cost-effective roads at the same time.

People of all ages can participate in the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program. Credit: Christiann Curley

How can people get involved with the program?

Anyone with internet access can find our website by searching “Wisconsin + turtles” on Google or another search engine. The Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program should be the first website to appear.

If you see a turtle in Wisconsin, go to the website and report it. The website is user-friendly, quick to use, and allows for photos to be uploaded with each report. We also have reporting forms that can be printed off and mailed in. Once submitted, we’ll make sure your report(s) gets appropriately recorded.

A secondary goal for our program is to try to educate and empower citizens so that they can make a difference on their own. If you’d rather work with your community to make road crossings safer for turtles, we help get the conversation started and give suitable options for any particular situation. If people have turtle nests on their property, we supply information on our site on how to create a predator-free nest cage. Those are just some of the ways people can get involved outside of submitting reports and photographs.

Why should people get involved?

It is easy to convince people that turtles are cool. A lot of people are very passionate about turtles because they can relate to them. They’re associated with longevity and wisdom, and are cool under pressure. More importantly, they are part of a diverse natural heritage in Wisconsin and should be an indefinite part of our future here.

Andrew Badje received his undergraduate degree in conservation biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later received a GIS (geographic information system) certificate. After putting his credentials to use with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) with the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey, he took on a new role coordinating the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program.

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About the Author

Russ Campbell

Russ Campbell

Russ Campbell heads communication at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a private biomedical foundation located in Research Triangle Park, N.C.  He is a volunteer with the Turtle Rescue Team, based out of the North Carolina State University Veterinary School.  He is the cofounder of the Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC).