Our local turtles are in trouble.
Four students in the Environmental Sciences program at Royal Roads University in Colwood are on the case, though, in an attempt to remedy that situation.
One of them, Will Kendon, received a diploma in environmental protection technology before joining the program to complete his bachelor’s degree. Since one aspect of the program is a year-long project in their field, he says, the group took on the mission of coming up with an environmental sustainability plan for the western painted turtle.
The reptiles are an endangered species. And with a significant population of them in and around the Langford lakes system, the group thought it was worth looking at how to sustain – if not improve – the situation in the region.
Group member Danielle Spence says they were originally asked to characterize the population; that is, count the males and females and determine their age. But that’s a huge process, so instead the group is focusing on creating and enhancing basking and mating sites for the turtle.
“It was a bit premature to do the profiling of them, so we decided the first step was to really look at the ecology of the lakes, and see how they’re doing in terms of being a good home for turtles to flourish,” Kendon says. “Then we’ll create a report for the City of Langford that has a bunch of background about the turtles – things they might not know – and pair our research with some recommendations.”
Basically, they’re hoping to help Langford city council make decisions based on relevant science.
“(Shoreline) development is by far the biggest impact on turtles. Historically, this was all agricultural land,” says group member Dan Beckmann, looking around Langford Lake from the dock at the boat launch.
“The lack of suitable nesting sites for them is the biggest thing,” Spence says. If the goal is to save the turtles and expand the population, she says, they need places where they will breed.
Beckmann says the turtles will travel up to 200 metres from shore to find an ideal spot to nest, and if they can’t do that, they run into issues.
“The other thing about nesting sites is they want something that’s south facing and sloped towards the sun,” says group member Grace Brouwer. “The eggs actually hatch in the fall and the hatchlings stay in the nest through the winter, so they need to be warm enough to survive within the nest. A warm, sunny spot is ideal.”
“Yeah, people and turtles want the same things,” Kendon says, which is unfortunate for the turtles.
The majority of the lakefront is privately-owned property, he says, so there needs to be an increased level of communication with those property owners so they understand there are turtles in the lake, and the importance they play in the ecosystem.
So far the students have been encouraged by the reception and supported they’ve received from residents around the lakes.
“We’ve spoken to people who already have turtles nesting on their property and are asking what they can do to help that,” Beckmann says. “Others have even offered to put out basking logs for the turtles on their property.”
“Turtles are a pretty beloved species, I guess. Everyone seems to care about them, at least a little bit,” Kendon adds. “I get the feeling that everyone wants to do what they can, but there’s only so much that’s reasonable to ask of people.”
While it’s great that people want to help, the students say, they also need to be educated so they can be sure they’re helping properly.
“I would encourage people to get involved, as long as they have the right information,” Kendon says. She notes that groups such as the Habitat Acquisition Trust are more than willing to talk with people and send out information if they’re approached with questions.
The group will complete its field work and prepare a report for city council over the next few months, with a presentation expected in August.
“We should be able to give a pretty solid list of recommendations to the City of Langford based on our research,” Kendon says.
Anyone who wants more information on the western painted turtle and details on how to help them can find it on the Habitat Acquisition Trust website, or by checking in with the B.C. Ministry of Environment.
Family members at odds
Besides development, another factor impacting on the endangered western painted turtle is actually a member of its own family. It’s the red-eared slider – the kind of turtle you see in pet stores swimming around in tanks like little swimming toonies with legs and a head.
“They live too long – too long for most people who want to keep them,” says Royal Roads University environmental science student Dan Beckmann, and they end up being released into the wild.
According to his research group investigating local western painted turtles, it’s not surprising that people would think, “I’ll just let him go free to live with his friends.” After all, the lake already has a bunch of turtles, so why not one more, right?
“Humans are bad for that,” says fellow group member Will Kendon. “Everywhere we go, we bring stuff that shouldn’t be there. The red-eared slider is another example of that.”
It’s hard to say how much of an effect they have on the western painted turtles, Kendon says, “but they occupy similar habitat areas, they’re larger and they’re definitely more aggressive.”
But at this point, he says, the focus is on helping the western painted turtles, rather than get rid of their invasive counterpart. “If the western painted can establish itself well enough, than the red-eared slider probably can’t damage it that much.”