Safe passage: Lake of the Pines resident makes it her mission to protect nesting turtles | TheUnion.com

Safe passage: Lake of the Pines resident makes it her mission to protect nesting turtles

Gemma Rudy is on a mission.

Several years ago, the Lake of the Pines resident noticed a curious phenomenon. Each year, in early June, there seemed to be a disturbing number of western pond turtles found dead in the streets of her neighborhood, clearly run over by passing cars.

She did a little research and discovered that during nesting season — which generally occurs from late May to the middle of July — females often leave ponds, rivers or lakes in search of a suitable site in which to lay their three to 13 eggs. Ideal nesting sites are often places with dry soil, sparse vegetation and a southern exposure.

In the case of Lake of the Pines, this often requires crossing a busy road. Since learning this, Rudy has made it her mission to draw attention to the mother turtles by making large signs for drivers reading, "Slow — turtle crossing" in the hopes that motorists will be on alert.

"It's so sad to see a mommy turtle who is just trying to nest, get crushed by a car," said Rudy. "It's just devastating. There are definitely specific areas where they tend to cross the road and that's where I've put the signs."

According to The Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization, the western pond turtle is the west coast's only native freshwater turtle, and is listed as endangered by the state of Washington, as "sensitive/critical" in Oregon and as a "species of special concern" in California.

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Because current populations are very fragmented throughout the west, the turtles face serious threats from man-induced habitat changes due largely to urbanization and agriculture. Additionally, gender ratios of hatchlings — which are generally the size of a quarter — are determined by the incubation temperatures of nests. In order to create an equal ratio of male and female turtles, the ideal temperature is approximately 84 degrees Fahrenheit, which means global warming is also a threat.

Remarkably, female pond turtles usually don't reach sexual maturity until they are 10 to 15 years old. While mating in the wild generally takes place in the spring, it can also occasionally occur in the fall.

"We're very fortunate to have a turtle population here — some people don't realize we have them," said Rudy. "I've made about 10 signs, but some get destroyed, so then I have to make new ones. People need to know which areas are most likely to have turtles crossing. Sometimes they're hard to see in the shadows. Certain areas are crucial for the mothers."

"Gemma took it upon herself to buy the materials, build the colorful signs and place them every June at key turtle crossings," said Lake of the Pines resident Brian Foster. "I thought this was a wonderful and thoughtful act. This shows what a wonderful and animal-loving community Lake of the Pines is."

Should drivers come across a turtle in the road, Rudy suggests they pick it up and put it on the side of the road in the direction it appears to be heading. Those who don't want to touch turtles are asked to stop and give it time to cross, when safe.

"I'm so happy that I've raised awareness about this," she said. "Now I'm hearing stories about people stopping traffic to let the turtles cross. That gives me hope."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.