State wants roadkill documentation
By George Barnes TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Piles of feathers, fur and gore are a common sight on the state's highways and byways this time of year, but unless the mess is particularly spectacular, most people drive on by with not much more than a quick glance.
Roadkill is ubiquitous, especially on major highways that cross wetlands or large areas of undeveloped land. Increasing development is causing more interaction between nature and the public with wildlife often on the losing end.
Looking for a way to allow man and wild to coexist, scientists working for the state Department of Transportation and the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program are asking for help from citizen scientists willing to take a good look at the carnage they pass during their daily commute and record what they see dead on the road, where and when, and maybe take a photo if they can. Among the most common dead animals reported since the study began have been moose, bear, deer, coyotes, fishers, fox, mink and otter, but people are also reporting squirrels, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, raccoon and other creatures too slow to avoid speeding cars and trucks.
The point of all of this is not that there is a sudden interest in dead animals, but the data collected will be used to better determine where safety fences can be erected on the edge of highways, larger culverts can be installed to allow better passage of aquatic wildlife or other wildlife friendly measures can be taken to reduce unnecessary animal mortality and also protect drivers from collisions with large animals.
David Paulson, a biologist for the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program said that the study will provide wildlife biologists with range information for various species and better understand patterns of migration by wildlife that intersect with roads and what can be done to prevent car accidents.
The program began in 2008 with an agreement between the state Department of Transportation and the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program to study how roadways affect wildlife in the state, with an eye toward reducing wildlife vehicle collisions. Working with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the agencies launched what they hope will be a long-term, volunteer-based research project.
Timothy Dexter, an environmental analyst for the state Department of Transportation's Highway Division said the data collected will allow the two departments to make the case for wildlife friendly highway improvements in the future.
“There hasn't been to date the science to determine if a significant issue exists,” he said.
The project is one of the first of its kind in the nation. The three central focuses of the program are species of high conservation priority that that suffer high roadway mortality, species that predictably cross roads through their regular range or migration and other species that are subject to wildlife mortality. To accomplish this, they are operating three projects simultaneously. One is the wildlife mortality database where people can enter their observations of roadkill at http://www.linkinglandscapes.info/roads/home.html. At the same internet link, people are invited to report mass migrations of vernal pool salamander migrations. The third study is a little more complex involving the survey of turtle mortality hotspots. Volunteers for that project are being asked to contact Mr. Dexter at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mr. Paulson at email@example.com.
Mr. Paulson said they are hoping to expand the number of volunteers this year from those that reported more than 332 wildlife roadkills from December 2009 to March of this year.
“There are a lot of people out there documenting this,” he said.
The turtle study especially is critical as some populations are at risk of being driven toward extinction from motor vehicles.
“When people think about wildlife transportation accidents, they think about deer, but turtles cross roads at a very high rate,” he said.
In many cases, turtles cross roads from the ponds they live in to sandy areas to lay their eggs and then return to the ponds they live in. Their offspring are also at risk when they hatch and cross to their home in a pond.
In Central Massachusetts in recent years, efforts have been made to reduce turtle mortality by erecting in Petersham and Princeton warning of turtles crossing the roads. In Wayland, high school students took it a step further, erecting a 3,600 foot fence along an area of Route 27 known to be an area of high turtle activity. The site saw the second highest turtle mortality of places studied over the past year.
The worst place found for turtle mortality was on Route 119 in Littleton where the road crosses Beaver Brook. Mr. Paulson said the problem there is the 1920s culvert is full to the top with water. He said the turtles may fine it easier to attempt to cross the busy road, rather than swim underwater through the culvert. Of the 300-plus turtles found dead in roadways last year, 101 were at that one crossing.
Studies have found that although turtles are small, Mr. Dexter said they can create significant risk for drivers. It has been shown drivers have three reactions when they see a turtle in the road — swerve to avoid it, swerve to hit it or do nothing. Each reaction represented 33 percent of the instances reported, meaning 66-percent of the time drivers swerved in reaction to a turtle, creating a dangerous situation for the drivers.
The vernal pool activity takes place mostly in the early spring, but mammal migrations and mortality take place through the year. The study is monitoring turtles through the spring and early summer.
Volunteers, either individually or in groups are invited to take part in the project, which Mr. Dexter said will continue as long as there is interest.
2011 TURTLE STUDY VOLUNTEERS CLICK HERE