OUT OF the first five turtles I saw on or near roadways the past week, four of them were dead — struck by vehicles while heading for their traditional egg-laying sites.

C’mon motorists. These aren’t deer jumping out in front of you or banging into your side panels as you pass. Heck, they move like turtles and should be easy to miss most of the time.

It’s not that I want any person to drive in a manner that would risk their safety or the safety of others, just to miss a turtle. But why not attempt to miss them or straddle them with the tires, if you possibly can?

In that vein, the most the scribbler can do is put motorists on notice that in the next week or two, turtle movement will peak as females cross highways and roadways to lay their eggs in the traditional areas they’ve used for decades.

They are going to lay those eggs or die trying. You can bet on that. And every motorist can do something proactive to make sure the turtles in their path make the journey.

While the North Woods is blessed with a ton of wetlands and small ponds that harbor turtles, in some ways the town of Three Lakes seems like a monster wetland. When you leave the downtown area, no matter what direction you go, there are turtle crossing areas on highways and town roads. And they are abundant.

Maybe that’s one reason why the Three Lakes Waterfront Association has signed and otherwise marked all of the known turtle crossing areas on town roads. The project includes the painting of “road art” on the pavement as a reminder to motorists to give turtles a break.

“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.”

According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), turtle protection is a big deal because the lowly turtles aren’t faring well. They’ve been impacted in recent decades by development-forced habitat changes, high predator numbers, poachers and careless motorists.

Rori Paloski, a conservation biologist, said it’s unfortunate that turtles prefer to lay eggs around dusk when low light conditions might make seeing them more difficult.

“The big issue with turtles is that it takes 10 years on average for a turtle to mature, and some take as long as 18 years to lay their first eggs,” she said.

Paloski said highway mortality poses a major threat to native turtle populations because they have a limited ability to rebound from any increase above natural mortality levels. Unlike mammals and birds, the trick to maintaining turtle populations is high adult survivorship.

“Another problem lies with motorists who purposely hit turtles, even swerving to hit them,” she said. 

“I know of a study from a western state that showed both turtles and snakes were subject to that kind of mortality at the hands of motorists.”

Dwindling turtle numbers suggest that we have to do more, which includes driving slower and paying more attention on rural roads.

She noted there is a turtle season in Wisconsin for some species, but it is closed in spring and early summer (opens mid-July) when female turtles are most vulnerable.

Turtles cross roads because roads often separate the aquatic habitat where turtles spend most of their time from the well-drained upland habitats where female turtles dig holes and deposit their eggs.

Females that survive from one year to the next often select the same location to nest. Paloski said 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 across a roadway, such a snapping turtles, she said the safe way to avoid being bitten is to gently drag it across the road by its tail, leaving the front feet on the pavement.

“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,” she said.

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. Two others are on the “concerned” list.

Turtles are up against tough odds even without highway mortality. Paloski said that as few as 5% of eggs laid survive to hatch and of those, only one in 100 may survive to reproductive age. The predators of both turtle eggs and young turtles include raccoons, red fox, skunks, opossums, herons, egrets, seagulls, cranes and crows.

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

If you want to help the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program, you can go online to record turtle crossing points. Paloski said that knowledge may help shape future road construction projects to include barriers or underpasses.

If you want to protect a nest site where eggs were laid, place wire mesh material over the area and bury several inches on each side. Openings of three inches or slightly larger will allow hatchlings to exit the nest.

I view turtles as a rare species of hard-shelled, almost ancient species that has survived the test of time, much like the sturgeons and the alligators.

So be on the lookout for dark or shiny objects in the road in coming weeks, because as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, they will come.