Charlotte County a rare bright spot for snapping turtles

(Nature Conservancy of Canada photo) Demonstration of the wheelbarrow method of helping a snapping turtle across a road.

ST. STEPHEN – Snapping turtle populations are under threat from manmade and natural forces.

The snapping turtle is a species of concern and scientists are undergoing a review of data to determine if it needs to be officially listed, said ecologist Connie Browne.

“Snapping turtle hasn’t gone though the provincial review yet,” noted Browne. She said in the past, the province followed national designations for species of concern and higher classification levels like threatened or endangered. More recently, the province has formed its own committee and is doing work to prioritize species that may need special recognition in New Brunswick that are different from national classifications. The snapping turtle is one of those.

“It’s possible it could change,” said Browne, once the province completes its review over the next year or two.

The ecologist said the federal government is currently assessing the snapping turtle and will present that data to the Committee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada this autumn.

She said Charlotte County has some good populations of snapping turtle.

“In New Brunswick, it’s probably the best county for snapping turtle popluations.”

Browne did some population studies around the province last year to try to update old records. She said one site she visited in Charlotte County was in Pocologan. She found turtles there, although not in four of the six sites she surveyed.

She said the site in Pocologan was “a beautiful, pristine, pretty much undisturbed site,” and it made sense to her that she found turtles there.

There are threats to the snapping turtle in Charlotte County. Browne noted Highway 1 through St. George where there’s a concrete divider between the lanes and that the road travels along some wetland areas.

“When they get to that barrier (while crossing), they can’t continue across the road. They end up having to travel up and down the roads trying to figure out a way to cross and they end up staying on the highway longer because of that divider,” she said.

The biggest threat to the turtles today is being run over by vehicles, according to Browne. When researchers map what they call areas of occupancy (squares two by two kilometres), “93 per cent of the cells had roads in them, so it’s pretty much affecting all snapping turtles.”

She said the second biggest threat is raccoons. Raccoons mostly prey on nests, but Browne said some will go after adult turtles.

“In some areas, nest predation can be 100 per cent,” she said.

Habitat loss is less of a problem today than in the past, she explained. Over the prior century when wetlands were being converted to agriculture and housing developments were being built, habitat loss was the main concern.

“Now there’s hardly any land being converted to agriculture,” she said, which means that threat has mostly passed. While there is still some land being converted for housing, “it’s at the percentage where it’s classified as a low threat.”

In more built-up urban areas, pollution from wastewater, sewage and industrial effluent are risk factors. Potato farming, she said, is a risk because of a particular chemical called metam sodium potato farmers use, which is “really toxic to turtle eggs.” She said turtles bioaccumulate toxins as well, meaning toxins build up the system over time that can impact reproduction.

If you see a snapping turtle crossing the road and are tempted to try to help it, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has some advice. Snapping turtle mouths are very strong and a bite can result in the loss of a finger. The conservancy says one good way to try to move turtles across a road is to approach them from the back and lift up the back end of the body, then gently move them across with the front legs on the ground, almost like a wheelbarrow. Browne said that’s a good method but to be careful of the back legs because the claws can cause heavy scratches.

The main thing, said Browne, is to remain calm and not upset the turtle. If they get scared, moving them is much more difficult.

“If everybody just kind of keeps calm and stays away from the head area, and you just pick it up from the back,” you can move them a short distance and they won’t get too agitated.