Blanding's turtle in tunnel below Hwy 4.jpg

A Blanding’s turtle in a tunnel below Highway 4. (Submitted photo)

I like to ride my bike. Fast. If you see me pedal by while you’re on a ride of your own, I’ll pretend that I don’t see you as I spin the crank just a little bit faster to be sure that I stay in the lead. Yes, we’re racing. No, you aren’t going to win.

This past Monday, I spotted a bike approaching from the opposite direction just as I was turning off of Square Lake Trail onto Norell. As I rounded the corner, I hit the gas and pedaled harder knowing the other bike was probably close behind. Perhaps he’d seen pigtails sticking out from beneath my helmet and thought it would be easy to catch a girl. Little did he know that I am quick like a rabbit, flying fast across a field.

I continued riding hard for three miles until suddenly, just as I had settled in for a final push toward home, I spotted what appeared to be a smooth black rock in the center of the road. I slowed, swerved in toward the dotted yellow line and scooped up a painted turtle that was slowly inching its way across the road. As I turned to deposit the turtle safely in the grass at the other side, a bike streaked past me on the shoulder of the road. Once again, the tortoise beats the hare.

Minnesota is home to nine species of turtle. The two we see most often in our area are the painted turtle, named for the beautiful swirling colors on their lower shells, and the snapping turtle. Two species of softshell turtle and three species of map turtles are usually only found in rivers and river-fed lakes. There are also two species of turtle listed as threatened species in Minnesota – the Blanding’s and the wood turtle.

Six years ago, Washington County and Washington Conservation District installed a small tunnel beneath Highway 4 near Big Marine Park Reserve to help protect female Blanding’s turtles during the spring and summer egg-laying season. The tunnel was part of a larger research and habitat restoration project funded by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Herpetological Society, and Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District.

Blanding’s require a mix of intact wetlands, lakes, grasslands and sandy, rocky open areas for breeding and nesting. They prefer calm, shallow water bodies with muddy bottoms and lots of lilies and aquatic plants; large marshes bordering the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers are ideal. They also frequent small temporary wetlands that dry up in the late summer or fall. Northern Washington County, including Big Marine Park Reserve, contains this special mix of habitat types and is one of the few places in the state where Blanding’s turtles still roam.

Over the years, Blanding’s turtles have lost vital upland and wetland habitat due to development and farming. The females will travel up to a mile to lay eggs in the spring, and as a result, many are killed by cars every year. When project partners set up a motion-activated camera in the turtle tunnel, they were surprised to see that a wide variety of wildlife were using the crossing in addition to Blanding’s turtles. The camera caught photos of painted turtles, snapping turtles, frogs, snakes, skinks, weasels, opossums and even birds.

Because most roads don’t offer safe passage for turtles, people like me often stop to help them cross while we’re out driving and biking in the country. If you see a turtle crossing the road and want to help, be sure to look for traffic first and only help if it is safe to so do. Carefully carry the turtle across the road in the same direction it is traveling and beware that snapping turtles can stretch their heads two-thirds of the way back along their bodies to bite you. Use gloves if you have them when helping snappers or use a large stick to push them across the road. Never grab turtles by the tails, as this can injure their spines.

You can also download an app to your phone to help track locations where turtles frequently cross roads (mnherps.com). Data collected is used to generate maps that will prioritize additional wildlife tunnels and crossings.

If you live on a lake, river or wetland, you can also work with the Washington Conservation District and your local watershed district to improve shoreline habitat for turtles and other wildlife. Leave fallen logs in place to offer places for basking and hiding and opt for native grasses along the water’s edge instead of rip rap, rock walls or turf. Sign up for a free site visit to get additional advice: mnwcd.org.

And if you see me biking while you’re out this summer, don’t bother trying to catch me. This rabbit has already lost one race and she doesn’t intend to lose another.

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water, a local government partnership with 25 members - www.mnwcd.org/emwrep. Contact her at 651-330-8220 x.35 or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.

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