One Small Step: He Brakes for Turtles Matthew Aresco Tallahassee, Florida
Turtle biologist and founder of the Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance, age 40 interview by Marilyn Berlin Snell
"Four years ago, I was driving near my home and noticed a bunch of dead turtles on the highway by Lake Jackson. I realized there was a big problem. More than 22,000 vehicles a day travel on U.S. Highway 27, which bisects the lake. It was a dry season and the lake was drawing down. The turtles were being killed as they tried to cross the highway from one part of the lake to the other, where there was more water.
"I picked up all the dead turtles, took photos, and sent a letter-with pictures-to the Florida Department of Transportation. For the next 40 days, I went out every day looking for turtles so I could move them safely. As I waited, another 340 turtles were killed. Finally, the DOT came out with me and said, 'Yeah, turtles are getting killed here, but doing something about it would take years of planning.'
"I came up with a temporary solution: a fence to keep turtles from going into the road and to direct them into a culvert. Finally DOT gave me the fencing. One day they came out with their truck, dumped 22 rolls off the back, and drove away!
"I put up nearly 2,200 feet of fence by myself. It took five days and got immediate results. The first year I collected about 4,800 turtles at the fence and moved them across the road-Florida cooters, yellow-bellied sliders, common musk turtles, and Florida soft-shell turtles mostly.
"I formed a nonprofit group called the Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance in 2002. I wanted to make it more of a community-based effort rather than a one-man crusade. We generated hundreds of letters to DOT and the county, and got $100,000 allocated to see what it would take to design a permanent wildlife crossing under the highway so turtles, alligators, snakes, and frogs could safely cross.
"I still monitor the fences, but I'm also working closely with the people doing the study. I've given them all my data.
"I've loved turtles since I was six or seven. They are fascinating animals, partly because they're so long-lived. I give them a different kind of respect."
AVOIDING ROADS TO RUIN: About one-third of U.S. turtle species are reaching dangerously low numbers, and scientists believe their decline is caused in part by increasing traffic. Wildlife overpasses and underpasses can reduce roadkill while guarding against habitat loss and fragmentation.