SEATED at a local bar and grill the other night, a fellow patron was entirely bent out of shape while looking at photos of a huge snapping turtle that was crushed and killed by a vehicle on a rural road near his house.

“Don’t people realize that some of these freshwater monsters might be 100 years old?” he quipped in an angry voice. “What are they thinking? They’re not!”

While accidents of all kinds do happen on Wisconsin’s roadways, it’s pretty hard to miss seeing a 40-pound snapping turtle on a rural road in broad daylight.

That’s the rub, you see, because it means that there’s a good chance that somebody deliberately hit and killed that monster turtle. And if so, for absolutely no good reason.

Biologists with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) say highway mortality continues to pose a major threat to native turtle populations that have been dwindling for more than a decade.

It’s a great column topic this week, earlier than usual, because the summer-like weather of late May has turtles on the move much sooner than expected.

The scribbler rescued a snapper and a painted turtle on one six-mile ride last Thursday, helping them get across Highway 45 when traffic was fairly heavy. A third was crushed on that same stretch of road.

They are vulnerable to traffic this time of year because they are migrating to their favorite sand and gravel areas to lay eggs, which quite often are located on the other side of a road.

Those days are a grand event for turtle reproduction and long-term survival, but they can be a life and death situation for many that cross highways and roads to reach their egg-laying grounds.

The good news this year is that at least in one community, the Three Lakes Waterfront Association has signed and otherwise marked all of the major turtle crossing areas on town roads.

The project includes the painting of “road art” on area roads as a reminder to motorists to give turtles a break, along with some large “Turtle Xing” signs.

“Please, slow down and maneuver to avoid contact or stop and help the turtles across the road in the direction they are headed,” said board member Jon Willman. “Either way, you help protect a unique member of our North Woods ecosystem.”

It’s a time of year when responsible motorists can help protect Wisconsin’s dwindling turtle population just by being aware that the egg-laying season is about to begin.

The lowly turtles aren’t faring well and need our help to survive. They’ve been impacted in recent decades by development-forced habitat changes, high predator numbers, poachers and careless motorists.

Beyond being alert or helping turtles cross, we need more people who condemn the careless, cruel minority who find it fun or sporting to hit those turtles, as one study found. We can criticize those who do it or brag about it.

Patrick Novesky, a DNR conservation warden in Three Lakes for many years, helped the Girl Scouts identify dozens of key crossings several years ago. He said June is really the only time of the year that people get to see monster snapping turtles close-up.

There is a turtle season in Wisconsin for some species, but it is closed in spring and early summer (opens July 15) when female turtles are most vulnerable. Turtles cross roads because roads often separate the aquatic habitat where turtles spend most of their lives from the well-drained upland habitats where female turtles deposit their eggs.

Females that survive from one year to the next often select the same location to nest. Biologists say if they are forced to cross roads, eventually the odds of making it across safely catch up with many of them.

When helping aggressive turtles, such as snapping turtles, the safest way to avoid being bitten is to gently drag it across the road by its tail, leaving the front feet on the pavement. It may help to use a stick that the turtle can bite, allowing one to grab the tail more safely.

“Every turtle we save increases the chance of maintaining turtle populations, especially since most of the turtles killed on roads during nesting season are mature females,” said a DNR biologist.

Five of Wisconsin’s 12 turtle species are experiencing significant population declines. The only endangered species, the ornate box turtle, is found in southern Wisconsin. But the wood turtle, a threatened species, is found in the northern half of the state.

Turtles are up against tough odds even without highway mortality. As few as 5% of eggs laid survive to hatch and of those, only one in 100 may survive to reproductive age — which can be 20 years. Turtle predators include raccoons, red fox, skunks, opossums, herons, egrets, sea­gulls, cranes and crows.

Biologists say turtles have a very limited ability to rebound from any increase above natural mortality levels. Unlike mammals and birds, the trick to maintaining turtle populations is high adult survival.

As with every creature, turtles are an important component in nature’s balance. They are scavengers of sorts, but also dine on fish, insects and other aquatic organisms. Adult turtles eat a lot of bugs, insects, larvae and other things people might consider to be pest species, he said. On the flip side, turtle eggs and newly hatched turtles provide food for predators.

A Michigan study shed light on a disturbing trend involving motorists and turtles: that many people were purposely running them over as some sort of perverted sport. The study, by a University of Michigan graduate, used rubber turtles on roads and to the sides of roads, most on the gravel.

If you want to help the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program, you can go online to record turtle crossing points at this address: wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles.

The bottom line is that the lowly turtles need our help to survive so that they will be around for and enjoyed by future generations.