The Blanding’s turtle lives the good life in northern Nebraska.
The yellow-throated, 3-pound reptile has the run of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge’s 72,000 acres of wetlands, lakes, ponds and prairie grasses, and can live up to 70 years — as long as it steers clear of the cars, pickups and cattle trucks on U.S. 83.
But the little critters like to move around, searching for mates, food and nesting sites, and they can become a danger to themselves, as roadkill, and to others, as slap shots.
“If someone were to hit the edge of a turtle shell, it can create a hockey puck effect and shoot out at oncoming traffic,” said Juancarlos Giese, the refuge manager.
So in 2001, when the state improved the highway dividing the refuge, it installed a series of turtle fences — knee-high, chain-link barriers that keep the turtles from crossing the road and funnel them instead to underground culverts.
At the time, a biologist estimated the refuge was home to roughly 137,000 Blanding’s turtles, a number that likely hasn’t changed much.
Locals scoffed at the plans initially, Giese said: You’re spending our tax dollars on what?
“They said, ‘Oh my gosh, there goes the refuge again, putting in these strange fences,’” he said.
But the Blanding’s turtle started using the culverts to get from one side of the refuge to the other, as did snapping turtles, painted turtles, yellow turtles, mud turtles, minks, weasels, raccoons and other small species documented by a University of Montana researcher studying the efficiency of the fences.
And the local skeptics noticed fewer bumps on the road.
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“I’ve heard from ranchers who are pretty leery of any of these new projects impressed by how many fewer turtles are hit along the highway,” Giese said.
Now, though, the state’s only turtle fences are starting to fail. A few stretches have been hit by cars. Erosion has undercut them in other places, opening up gaps.
“They’re not real bad yet, but there are places the turtles are getting through,” said Mark Lindvall, who was refuge manager when the fences were built and is now president of the Sandhills Prairie Refuge Association.
Lindvall and the association are organizing a fence-fixing project, calling on volunteers to meet June 16 in Valentine with their pliers, shovels and, if they have them, orange safety vests.
The state Department of Transportation and the refuge are providing materials; the association is supplying lunch.
They’ll try to shore up as much as they can, Lindvall said. The refuge isn’t full of turtle fences: three stretches — about a quarter-mile each — skirt the highway near turtle-popular wetlands, and a fourth section was installed at nearby Ballard’s Marsh, a state wildlife management area.
If all of the fence isn’t fixed June 16, the association could organize a second work day, Lindvall said.
Giese is grateful for the help. So are the refuge’s Blanding’s turtles, and the drivers who don’t have to swerve as much.
“It doesn’t just protect turtles,” he said. “It protects public safety as well.”