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Sticking his neck out for turtles

The slowpokes never knew human kindness, only the crush of tires, until one man's caring turned to compulsion.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- "The killing zone starts right down there, by that lawyer's office," Matt Aresco says.

His brown eyes are worried. Wind from passing traffic ruffles his longish dark hair. He has been trying to save turtles on this stretch of road for about three years, ever since the day he was out driving on U.S. 27 and saw a smashed turtle. And another. And another.

He pulled over.

"When I got out and walked, I picked up 90 dead turtles in just a third of a mile."

He piled the dead turtles on a tarp and took a grisly picture.

Ten species of turtles have been dying on this road for many, many years. Aresco is the first person who ever tried to do something about it.

Why turtles cross the road

He's a reptile guy, a 39-year-old graduate student in herpetology at Florida State University. Through back-breaking research on the side of the road, he has documented the highest rate of turtle mortality on any road in North America. Ninety-eight percent of the turtles that try to cross, Aresco found, don't make it.

Why do the turtles cross the road? To get to the water on the other side. This road is an old one, built before environmental rules took wetlands into account.

There's just one culvert under the road, not enough for all the turtles.

"I'll watch a turtle, and when it gets to the side of the road, it will turn away for a minute," sensing the rumble and wind of passing traffic. "But its need to get across to that water overpowers everything," Aresco says.

At first, Aresco just tried to round up the turtles to get them out of harm's way.

Rush hour was the worst.

"You'd be standing out here picking up a turtle and you'd see three more up there going into the road."

He waves his arm northward.

"You'd turn around," he waves south, "and there'd be more down there. It was crazy. No one stops. No one swerves. It's just like a conveyor belt in a factory."

"I got sort of callous finding the dead turtles. But it's the live ones you see die right in front of you that get to you. In seconds, they are in pieces. Some of these turtles are 30 years old."

He couldn't stand it. He started a one-man crusade that quickly consumed his life.

Aresco started a Web site (www.lakejacksonturtles.org) and put his roadkill pictures on it. Turtle enthusiasts from all over the world got interested. They sent him letters and e-mails, and later they contacted local Tallahassee officials to beg that something be done to save the turtles.

Aresco keeps exhaustive records of both live and dead Lake Jackson turtles. He says the turtle population can't adapt to such huge losses. Female turtles take a long time to get to the point where they can reproduce -- as long as a decade. And most of their eggs are snatched by animals. So, when turtles keep getting smashed on the road, it affects the balance of the entire population.

Aresco sent his pictures to the state Department of Transportation.

"We had a meeting. They said, 'There's not a lot we can do about it.' I started bugging them."

Aresco bought black landscaping cloth and got the DOT to donate some. First by himself, and later with volunteers, he put up nearly a mile's worth of low, soft fence that stops the turtles from getting into the road -- most of the time.

"It's not well documented that turtles are such great climbers, but they are," Aresco says. "(The fence) works well at holding the turtles up until I can come and collect them."

He says he has saved 8,016 turtles since he started 33 months ago. He marks them, measures them, and takes them to the other side.

But lines of turtles marching along that tiny fence create a buffet for raccoons. In 2000, Aresco counted almost 200 turtles killed by raccoons.

The road to ruin

He comes out to this stretch of road every day, at least twice a day. It's a flat road, four lanes of blacktop, with brush on either side and lake and swamp beyond that. In fall, there are wildflowers. In summer, it's full of ticks, fire ants, prickers. Nobody's dawdling on this stretch of road; they roar through on their way to somewhere else.

Aresco patrols his 18-inch-high turtle fence, making repairs with duct tape and looking for turtles.

When he leaves town, fellow graduate student Eric Walters, 36, helps out.

"He can't really leave town without someone covering for him, or else turtles get killed," Walters said. "When I was doing it, I'd worry all the time. Was I too late? Was I too early? He's so worried that it kind of rubs off on you."

Aresco says his fence is simply not enough. And when he gets his degree and leaves town, what will happen to the turtles?

He has started a massive campaign to get an official "ecopassage" under the road -- a series of culverts big enough so that turtles can see light at the other end. They instinctively move toward the light. One ecopassage at Paynes Prairie, in Gainesville, has been a huge success.

"Road kill has dropped to a dribble," said David O'Neill, a biologist who spearheaded the effort to install the $3.8-million ecopassage that lets creatures cross safely from one side of the 18,000-acre Paynes Prairie to the other.

Aresco is learning that government, like turtles, can move slowly. Other projects are ahead of his. The DOT is building ecopassages to protect black bears and other protected species.

"I was naive in the beginning," he said. "I thought that all I'd have to do is document this and within six months to a year, they'll be out here building this thing. It isn't happening that way."

He has had some luck. His neighbor, 38-year-old Dan Winchester, grew up on Lake Jackson. Like Aresco, he loved to catch turtles when he was a boy. Winchester is also a Leon County commissioner. He had Aresco come to a commission meeting and show pictures. One showed the 90 mangled turtles he found that first day.

"When Matt showed those pictures, you should have seen the commissioners' faces," Winchester said.

The vote was unanimous: Leon County would actively seek funding to build the ecopassage.

When Winchester ran for re-election, the turtles briefly became a campaign issue. His opponent called the ecopassage a boondoggle, and called Aresco an "ecoterrorist."

Winchester won. The community is behind the ecopassage. Now the DOT is funding a $50,000 study of the problem. And there is money set aside each year in both the federal and state budgets to solve environmental problems caused by highways. A citizens group formed to lobby for the ecopassage.

Aresco's obsession has proved contagious.

On the lookout

Still, he worries. Will the DOT keep stalling? The state wants another study. He has already done a study, he says. He has 33 months worth of data and has logged 5,000 hours on the project. Even his girlfriend gets tired of hearing him talk about it.

He has always been like this, he says. When he was a boy in Connecticut, he lived near wetlands. Neighborhood boys used to catch bullfrogs and smash them with rocks.

"I used to get so mad at them," he said.

He persuaded his dad to help him build a pond in his own back yard, using a pool liner. They filled it with lily pads. Aresco collected the bullfrogs from the wetlands and put them in his own pond, to keep them safe.

He lives close to Lake Jackson now, close to the turtles. But even then, he's restless.

"It's really hard to be at home and know there could be a soft-shellclimbing over that fence."

Sometimes he takes another trip out to U.S. 27, just to check.

Diary of the Turtle Man

"The roar of an 18-wheeler is followed by a blast of air as it passes. Hidden in the low brush at the edge of U.S. 27 near Tallahassee is a Florida cooter, a turtle that hatched from an egg on the shores of Lake Jackson 15 years ago. She grew large living in the lake, but today she must leave. The lake waters had been slowly receding for months, and this morning she crawled out of a muddy drying pool to begin a dangerous migration to find new water. Ancient instincts directed her west, somehow knowing that there was water in the distance.

"She forced her large armored body through the thick vegetation, and by afternoon she had slowly climbed the steep slope that leads to the highway, sliding back down several times before reaching the top. After pausing to rest, she leaves the cover of the roadside brush and stretches her neck to use all her senses to guide her. Water and a new home are only a few hundred yards away, but the landscape between her and her goal is strangely unfamiliar. She could not know that the short stretch of open ground ahead is a killing zone for turtles; she only knows that she must cross to the other side.

"Driving north on U.S. 27, I squint my eyes and see the familiar silhouette from a quarter-mile away. I quickly pull my truck off the road, get out and race toward her. I would have only a few seconds to save her. A line of rush hour traffic is rapidly approaching and the turtle, paused in the center of the northbound lane, is confused and trying to get a bearing on her position. Seeing me running toward her, she pulls her head into the safety of her shell, not aware that the real danger is the rolling thunder of the machines piloted by motorists oblivious to her plight. I snatch her off the road and look back as 20 sets of wheels rocket over the spot where she had rested only moments before."

-- Matt Aresco, writing in "Florida Wildlife" magazine.

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