Outdoors-Woman workshop an escape for many

Published 5:27 pm Monday, October 27, 2008

The Alabama red-bellied turtle recently received a significant boost in the effort to protect the endangered species with the erection of a fence along the causeway by the Alabama Department of Transportation.

ALDOT christened the 3.4-mile low barrier fence recently at 5 Rivers – Alabama’s Delta Resource Center, which sits smack dab in the middle of prime habitat for the turtle, Alabama’s official state reptile.

Tony Harris of ALDOT said the construction of the fence augments an older fence along the causeway and other fences erected by volunteer groups. The fences are designed to keep the red-bellied turtle from being hit by vehicles as it tries to cross the four lanes of the causeway.

“I’m very proud to say ALDOT funded and built the new portion of the fence,” Harris said. “It was concentrated at key points along the causeway, particularly the Blakeley and Appalachee rivers and Chacaloochie Bay (a.k.a. Chocalotta Bay).

“From its inception, the effort to protect Alabama’s red-bellied turtle has been a true partnership. ALDOT was joined by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and State Lands divisions, as well as the University of South Alabama and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And we must not forget The Nature Conservancy, which was one of the first champions of this cause.”

Roger Clay, wildlife biologist with Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, said the large freshwater turtle’s restricted range makes it especially vulnerable.

“In fact, it has one of the more restricted ranges of any turtle in the United States,” Clay said. “It’s only found in four counties along the Gulf Coast – Mobile and Baldwin counties in Alabama and Harrison and Jackson counties in Mississippi. It’s mainly found in the lower reaches of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.”

The red-bellied turtles, which were added to the endangered species list in 1987, are primarily herbivorous, eating aquatic vegetation available near the Causeway in the shallow bays and rivers. The nesting peak is May and June with some activity continuing into July.

“When the female turtles come out of the water looking for nesting areas, they can cross the causeway, and that’s when they are vulnerable to being struck by vehicles,” Clay said. “Their preferred nesting areas are on the higher ground along the Causeway, and the turtles are particularly attracted to spoil areas and banks like the north end of Gravine Island.

“The good thing about most of the Alabama red-bellied turtle’s range in Mobile and Baldwin counties is that it’s under public ownership – about 100,000 acres comprised of three Wildlife Management Areas, where the land is managed for the red-bellied turtle and all wildlife.”

Clay said vehicles traveling the causeway are not the only risk factors for the turtles. Red-bellied turtles face threats before they even emerge from their nests. Animals like raccoons, fish crows, herons, feral hogs and alligators prey on eggs and hatchlings. The female builds a nest with around a dozen eggs and hatchlings emerge from the nests 70 or more days later. Some hatchlings remain in the nest and do not emerge until the following spring.

The hatchlings then head for water, and sometimes that route takes them across the causeway.

Harris also added that in addition to the fence, ALDOT is conducting an awareness program to alert drivers about the turtle’s nesting and hatching seasons. Banners will be erected along the Causeway telling motorists – “Alabama’s Red-Bellied Turtles Need a Brake.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com to learn more about the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.