Parks Canada is drawing attention to its On The Road Again conservation project, which aims to improve reptile and amphibian habitats in eastern and central Ontario.
The conservation effort is focused on the areas in and around Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Bruce Peninsula National Park and Thousand Islands National Park (about 50 minutes east of Kingston) and is particularly focused on turtles and their nesting season throughout May, June, and early July.
Project Coordinator Katherine Welch said On The Road Again started officially in 2020 in response to the population decline of reptiles and amphibians due to dramatically altered landscapes. Through the project’s $1.8 million in funding, actions to be taken include installing new under-road animal passageways, that will help species safely cross roadways, supporting habitat restoration, and implementing large-scale public engagement initiatives.
Through this program, Parks Canada has partnered with municipalities, local stakeholders, and Indigenous community groups to protect the species at risk from habitat destruction and the dangers they face near roads.
Welch says while the efforts of Parks Canada staff are mainly focused on the parks themselves, collaborating with other partners is meant to inspire that awareness to reach further than just the park limits.
“It’s very important to protect these species,” Welch said.
“We’re trying to do that within our boundaries but also outside of our boundaries… we want to try and be a resource for other groups so that we can work together for conservation and collaboratively improve the corridors that these animals use so that hopefully we can reduce the impact on their populations.”
All species of turtles in Ontario are considered at risk, ranging from species of special concern to endangered, and are considered “keystone” species – meaning their role in the food web of their ecosystem is integral and without them the ecosystem could collapse.
Welch says that the areas that house these three parks hold some of the greatest numbers of species at risk. Turtles also play a pivotal role in transferring seeds, as well as keeping wetlands clean – and by doing so are key to keeping water systems in general clean. As populations grow and cities expand, many wetlands are shrinking and wildlife face more danger than ever with roads all around them.
“There’s more roads, there’s more habitat fragmentation and habitat loss,” Welch said. “Habitat loss is the biggest threat to turtles and snakes and then the next is road mortality.”
Welch stated that one of the biggest steps people can take to help protect wildlife is simply to slow down and be alert while driving. Prime nesting spots often tend to be near roads, inherently putting already at risk species in more danger.
“I think the biggest thing is slow down, especially during this time,” Welch said.
“If you’re driving… take a look at what’s on the road ahead of you, slow down and pay attention to those small things that are on the road.”
Welch said that other ways to help are joining local community science groups to work for nest protection, reporting turtle sightings through apps like INaturalist, and if you see an injured turtle on the road stopping and calling the Ontario Turtle Hotline at 705-741-5000 for directions on how to help.
Owen Fullerton is a Kingston-based reporter with the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI).