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John Urquhart joined Ontario Nature in July 2009 as the reptile and amphibian atlas intern. He completed a B.Sc. of Environmental Science in ecology and an M.Sc in zoology. John has worked on conservation, education and stewardship projects for government and non-profit organizations. Prior to joining Ontario Nature, he also participated in numerous monitoring and field research projects that focused on reptiles and amphibians.


This is info I gleaned from John’s discussion at our AGM this year:

75% of Ontario’s turtles are at risk!!

7 of 10,000 eggs laid will make it to maturity.  Loss of eggs do not make a huge impact because of this.  However, every adult turtle lost makes a HUGE difference!

When rescuing turtles crossing the road, simply help them across in the direction they are already trying to go.  Do not take them to another area.

There are 2 rescue rehabilitation centers in our general area:

Napanee: Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre   http://www.sandypineswildlife.org/

Peterborough: The Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre  http://www.kawarthaturtle.org/



Province green lights hunting at-risk turtle

Posted on April 24, 2012 by John Urquhart

In complete disregard of a petition signed by more than 11,000 people and a report jointly released by Ontario Nature, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) told us that hunting snapping turtles can continue even though the animal is listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Wow. How can Minister Gravelle, or anyone working at MNR, believe that this is the right decision? Gravelle’s response is a slap in the face to the scientific experts who determined the hunt is unsustainable, the hunters who are eating potentially toxic meat, and the 11,000 Ontarians who asked the government to stop the hunt (www.ontarionature.org/protect/campaigns/snapping_turtle.php).

MNR has decided that while it’s ok to keep killing snappers, they would like to see mandatory reporting of the “harvest.” (MNR’s suggested reporting requirement is now posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights, registry number 011-6043).

We have no idea how MNR will enforce this directive. Moreover, mandatory reporting of hunted animals (using a tag system as is the case with moose and deer) yields notoriously inaccurate data. Typically, 50% of the hunted animals are reported. Still, through a tag system, MNR has contact information for every hunter and can theoretically enforce reporting. However, people who hunt snapping turtles are not issued tags, so MNR has no way of knowing who is doing the hunting. Any reporting they do get is surely going to be a huge underestimation of the actual total. Nevertheless, MNR will use this number to determine next steps, possibly concluding that the hunt is sustainable!

The fact of the matter is that the only way to determine if the hunt is sustainable is to determine how many snapping turtles are in Ontario and monitor the changes in population size over time. In addition, it would be helpful to get an accurate assessment of how many snapping turtles are being killed annually.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, our report showed that many snapping turtles have concentrations of PCBs that are unsafe for human consumption. Yet nothing has been proposed to determine which lakes have safe levels of contamination as is done with sport fish. Snapping turtles can live for a very long time, some estimates suggest well over 100 years, and toxins accumulate in their bodies each year and often reach hazardous levels.

The snapping turtle hunt is unhealthy to people who eat the meat and unsustainable for snappers. Minister Gravelle’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the evidence means everyone loses.

Please go to the EBR posting and ask MNR to do the right thing and ban the snapping turtle hunt or impose a moratorium until MNR has accurate hunting estimates, population trends and toxicity results across the turtle’s range with which to base an informed decision.


Nature’s profit motive

Posted on January 11, 2012 by John Urquhart

Will Ontario make good on its promise to stop the losses of our native wildlife and sensitive habitats?

Earlier this week, Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, expressed his concerns about this when his office released a special report on biodiversity entitled: “A Nation’s Commitment, an Obligation for Ontario.” The report explains that biodiversity loss – the loss of the variety of species and natural systems that make up the web of life – poses an enormous threat to the well-being of people living in Ontario, Canada and the rest of the world.

The frightening implications of biodiversity loss were recognized in 1993 when Canada became a signatory to the Convention for Biological Diversity, an international treaty that commits the 193 signatory countries to work towards stopping further loss of species and ecosystems. Subsequently, in 1995, the Government of Ontario declared its commitment to conserve and sustain biodiversity.

But what does this commitment look like? If the Province is serious about protecting our biodiversity, then the government will have to follow up on two key recommendations. First, a provincial policy document must be drafted that requires each ministry to consider biodiversity in its daily operations and outline specific action items to be taken within key ministries.

Second, the Ontario Ministries of Natural Resources and Environment must be awarded sufficient funding to allow them to accomplish conservation goals.  Rumours that these ministries may be hit with further budget cuts in 2012 do not bode well on this one.

Cutting funding to the two ministries charged with safeguarding Ontario’s wildlife and wild spaces would be fiscally irresponsible. Investing in the environment creates economic wealth. For example, a recent study commissioned by the Government of Canada found that 28 full time jobs can be created for every one million dollars spent on green projects, such as biodiversity and habitat conservation. In comparison, investment in infrastructure, such as roads, creates 9 full time jobs for every one million invested.

Another example from the same study shows how investing in environmental programs more than pays for itself. Ontario spent 11 million dollars to create the Ontario Wetland Habitat Fund. This initiative generated almost 100 million dollars – paying for the program almost 10 times over! The profit reflects direct and indirect income, landowner contributions and the dollar value of ecological goods and services.

The bottom line: investing in biodiversity and a green economy creates jobs and generates wealth. Ontario Nature is asking the government of Ontario to consider this when choosing where to make cuts in the upcoming budget.


Is it ok to move turtle eggs?

Posted on July 5, 2011 by John Urquhart

People often ask Ontario Nature staff for advice about how to deal with situations that they encounter in nature. Whether putting out a bird feeder, planting native flowers or grasses, or choosing not to cut down the trees on your property, people are on the front lines of local conservation efforts more often than you might realize.

Because I coordinate the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, I am frequently asked what to do when a turtle lays eggs in an “unnatural” place. Recently, someone wondered if it was ok to move snapping turtle eggs that had been laid in front of their house, separated from a nearby lake by a road and a trailer park.

First, some important information about turtles: Turtle eggs have a naturally high mortality rate. So while it is expected that many eggs will be lost, that in itself is not cause for concern given that adult turtles possess extremely high survivorship rates when people aren’t around. The egg mortality rate only becomes a problem when human activity – roads, development – cause an increase in adult mortality rates. Even a one percent/year rise in adult mortality rates could wipe out an entire population of turtles.

Consequently, it is more important than ever to make sure turtle eggs survive. Eggs may not develop if they are not oriented correctly after being moved. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is preparing protocols for nest protection, which will be released in 2012. In the meantime, MNR must authorize the re-location of turtle eggs. This is because seven of Ontario’s eight turtles are at risk and therefore protected under the Endangered Species Act; the eighth is protected under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. Specific rules and regulations come with this protection including getting a permit before doing anything to turtle eggs. My advice in this situation is to contact your local MNR Species at Risk biologist to determine the best course of action.

However, given the toll that a growing human population in Ontario takes on turtles in general, I must emphasize how important it is to move adult turtles off our roads. Saving just one adult turtle from getting hit by a car is actually better for the species than protecting dozens of nests. Turtles should always be moved in the direction in which they are facing, no matter what the habitat looks like and nesting turtles should never be moved. You can learn more about reptile and amphibian stewardship here.

Another great way to help turtles is to record your observations for Ontario Nature’sReptile and Amphibian Atlas to help improve our knowledge of where turtles can be found and their population numbers. If you’ve seen a turtle or turtle eggs, please let us know. If you are unsure about what kind of turtle you’ve seen, e-mail me a picture atjohnu@ontarionature.org.



Me and the map turtles

Posted on October 8, 2010 by John Urquhart

May 9, 2010

It is hard to believe we’ve been working in the Lost Bay nature reserve for almost two weeks already. We spent the first week surveying the property and evaluating the habitat in terms of where we were most likely to find turtles and snakes. Three minutes into our first walk, we found a good sized male snapping turtle basking in the sun about 100 m from water! I wasn’t even planning on finding turtles at all that afternoon. Luckily I had a file and could mark its shell so we could identify it if we found it later. Our first turtle has notch code 12L. We proceeded to search for snake hibernacula and found a ribbon snake up on a rocky ledge. Thus within 10 minutes of entering the site we found two of the eight reptile at risk species we were searching for!

We were hearing frogs call and finding frog and salamander eggs in every little puddle we came across. On our way out of the reserve we saw a snapping turtle in the wetland nearest to the turtle we marked on the way in. Despite our assumption that it was likely to be the same turtle we went in after it. Dave Ireland (Toronto Zoo Curator of Conservation/my volunteer) went to grab it and another one swam away! We figured that they were a mating pair as one was much smaller than the other (and female snapping turtles are much smaller than males). Dave grabbed the larger turtle, which turned out to be a new male! I followed the trail of bubbles and pulled the other snapping turtle out of the mud and it was the male we had already found! So what we interrupted was a fight for territory with 12L being obviously too small to have a chance. What a start to our season!

Fast forward to this week and we now have our traps in the water and a canoe at our disposal. We’ve averaged 10 turtles per day for four straight days! We’ve captured 14painted turtles, 12 snapping turtles, seven musk turtles, seven map turtles, and this afternoon two Blanding’s turtles meaning we have confirmed the presence of all five of the turtle species we hoped could be using the reserve! As a side note, most of the turtles we have caught have been with the traps. The exception is the map turtles who simply don’t take the bait. As a result I have made good use of Mark’s wetsuit. To catch the map turtles I swim VERY slowly through frigid water up to the rocks the turtles bask on and watch a few of them dip off. I continue to approach until the last turtle or two launch from the rock (usually with me only a few feet away) and launch my strike and grab one or two of them. One strike there was still five turtles on the rock and I had never wished so hard for more than two hands or a kangaroo’s pouch. After the strike I snorkel through the water for a little while and often find a male or two hiding in the vegetation.


Turtle hunting

By John Urquhart

With its large shell – up to 47 centimetres in length – and the series of triangular spikes lining its tail, the snapping turtle looks prehistoric, and it is. Sadly, Ontario’s biggest and longest-lived turtle – estimates based on size and growth rates suggest snapping turtles could live to be over 150 years old – is in decline due to road-kill and habitat loss. Both Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the federal Species at Risk Act list the snapping turtle as a species of special concern. Nevertheless, the animal is still legally hunted as game in Ontario, as the ESA prohibits the killing only of species designated as threatened or endangered. Indeed, a person may kill up to two snapping turtles per day over the course of two to 12 months, depending on where the turtles are hunted.

Several years ago, the Ontario Multi-Species Turtles at Risk Recovery Team recommended that the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) outlaw the hunting of snapping turtles on the basis of the team’s findings that killing the turtles, even in low numbers, will significantly diminish the likelihood of the species’ survival. Alarmed that a species at risk was being legally hunted, Ontario Nature members passed a resolution in 2009 requesting that MNR remove the snapping turtle from the provincial Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act game list.

The following year, Ontario Nature filed a request for a policy review, under the Environmental Bill of Rights, of the hunting regulation. Last February, MNR denied Ontario Nature’s request, claiming that the hunt was sustainable, even though the ministry has no recent data to substantiate its claim and does not monitor the hunt.

The decision to permit the hunting of snapping turtles flies in the face of scientific evidence. Increases in the death rate of adult snapping turtles can have an extremely negative effect on populations of this species. These turtles begin laying eggs when they are nearly 20 years old, and on average only seven of 10,000 eggs laid will survive to adulthood. Studies have shown that an increase of even 1 percent in adult mortality could eventually wipe out an entire population of snapping turtles. Having survived for thousands of years, the snapping turtle may now become locally extinct because of poorly thought out policy.


Having a field day

By John Urquhart

Ontario Nature’s conservation staff is back in the field! We are continuing our research on reptiles and amphibians as we work toward the completion of the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. One of the unique aspects of the atlas is the opportunity it provides for citizen scientists. Anyone can contribute valuable data that, once the project is complete, will constitute the most up-to-date information on Ontario populations of reptiles and amphibians (together called “herpetofauna”).

To date, more than 400 people have submitted observations of reptiles and amphibians, and we have received more than 162,000 records, noting when and where specific species have been sighted in Ontario, from the public, researchers and other conservation organizations. The data is shared with the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Information Centre and used to help determine the most effective conservation strategies for these species. In just two years, the atlas project has doubled the number of herpetofauna records in the existing provincial database.

You can learn more about these species on Ontario Nature’s atlas website (www.ontarionature.org/atlas). The account for each species includes a page of photos, range maps, detailed descriptions and identification tips. Also listed are outreach events planned for this year. Last year, more than 1,500 people attended some 40 presentations, field training events, workshops and exhibits.

Interested in joining our conservation efforts this year?  Send me an e-mail atjohnu@ontarionature.org  or check out the atlas website. With your help, we can make a difference for these increasingly vulnerable creatures.

















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