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Students put up fence to protect turtles

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CANTON — Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the other side — and to lay its eggs.

But unfortunately, many of them don't make it. On one stretch of Route 68 outside Canton, where the busy road passes through a wetland, it is estimated that more than 80 turtles are killed by cars each year.

Thomas A. Langen, an associate professor of biology at Clarkson University, Potsdam, hopes to change that.

He recently brought a crew of 20 students from the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services' environmental technology program to the highway to build a 3-foot-high fence to keep turtles out of harm's way.

The Northwest Tech students worked alongside state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation representatives Thursday to erect an 1,800-foot green wire fence at the base of Route 68.

"This area is a 'sink,' where the population can't be sustained, given the amount of roadkill," Mr. Langen said. "And turtles have very long lives — they can live over a century."

Mr. Langen's college students track how many turtles are killed in that area annually. Of the three species living in the wetland, about 50 painted turtles, 30 snapping turtles and a handful of Blanding's turtles, which are endangered in New York state, are killed on the road each year.

For several reasons, turtles frequently try to lay their eggs right next to or on the road, Mr. Langen said. They also try to cross the highway to get to another pond or waterway.

"They like to nest in areas that have short vegetation and a lot of sunlight. Since the road has asphalt, it's warm in the spring," Mr. Langen said. "They also move from one wetland to another. This time of year, a lot are hit because they're moving to their winter hibernating spots."

Most turtles are killed by cars between May and September here, Mr. Langen said.

He directed BOCES students as they lashed fencing to posts in a trench that they dug along the road Thursday. He hopes to work with the students in the program again next year to erect a similar fence on the other side of the road.

"We're showing them the reason why they're here, because of the problem of turtles coming up to go in the road and getting hit," said John A. Bresett, an assistant instructor for the environmental technology students. "This gives the students some hands-on experience."

In a 2006 project, Mr. Langen built wood and metal barriers farther down Route 68 near Norton Cemetery to keep turtles and frogs from crossing there.

He used radio transmitters to track the movements of snapping turtles and found that with the barrier by the road, the turtles swam through culverts underneath the roadway to move between areas. Mr. Langen said he hopes turtles will do the same thing in the new fence location.

With this project, Mr. Langen wants to see whether the cheaper wire fencing is just as effective in preventing turtles from becoming roadkill.

Another Potsdam professor also is working to reduce the number of turtles killed on roads. Glenn Johnson, chairman of the biology department at SUNY Potsdam, erected five temporary diamond-shaped signs throughout the county, warning motorists to watch for turtles in June.

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