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Local EcoCorridors and Turtle Populations in the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System

October 12, 2023

By Tys Theijsmeijer, Sr. Director Ecosystem Stewardship, Royal Botanical Gardens

Header photo courtesy of Jeff Leader.

While a long list of wildlife species inhabit the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System, those who find it the most challenging to travel between natural areas are the smaller ones. Turtles, primarily found in the two big Lake Ontario coastal marshes of Cootes Paradise and Grindstone Marsh, are among the most impacted of the group. Challenges are many, including but not limited to wetland health, roads bisecting their habitat, poaching, persecution, and nests raided by the large urban nest predator populations such as raccoons, skunks, fox and coyote.  These issues have led to all of Ontario’s turtle species being listed as at risk on Canada’s Species at Risk Act (2002). Our region has lost two turtle species in recent decades, including Wood Turtle and Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle, with Blanding’s Turtles currently teetering on the brink of local extirpation. Blanding’s Turtles spend considerable time travelling on uplands, adding to the road mortality issue. To guide protection and recovery, the Blanding’s Turtle has a Recovery Strategy (2018) and a local site recovery plan (2014).

Improving wetland health is one of the primary challenges for turtle conservation. Both our marsh areas are degraded, and still host turtle population remnants. Grindstone Marshes (60 ha) is degraded, and occupies Hendrie Valley. Cootes Paradise (320 ha) is the largest local marsh and is historically also the most degraded of the two.  Both marshes are part of the Hamilton Harbour Great Lakes Area of Concern program for recovery. Considerable habitat recovery work has occurred but still much work remains. The Blanding’s Turtle has become a focal species for special projects due to its reliance on these marshes and the surrounding uploads, as well as their Endangered/Threatened status under provincial and federal Species at Risk legislation. This turtle’s habitat needs and charismatic look – a bright yellow neck and chin upturned in a smile – have made it an ideal representative for the conservation challenges of road mortality, nest predation, and nesting area habitat loss faced by many other wildlife species.

About the Blanding’s Turtle – the “Critical Habitat” (habitat necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species) as defined in the 2018 Recovery Strategy includes nesting habitat, overwintering habitat, and functional habitat. The Strategy defines functional habitat for Blanding’s as corresponding to suitable terrestrial habitat extending up to 240 m of permanent or seasonal wetlands located within a radial distance of 2 km of a Blanding’s Turtle record, including watercourses and waterbodies within that 2 km radial distance. The Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System hosts a series of wetland ponds and oxbows along lower Grindstone Creek within Royal Botanical Gardens’ Hendrie Valley. This creates a home range for this species from the downstream area known as Carroll’s Bay extending 4 km upstream into Burlington’s Hidden Valley Park. This could also be referred to as the local habitat “ecocorridor” for Blanding’s Turtle, with broader regional corridors needed to then connect them to other populations. The end goal to support sustainability of this and other species is to reconnect the overall “Critical Habitat” back together within its ecological corridor. These issues are also highlighted in the EcoPark Systems Lower Grindstone Heritage lands Management Plan.

The Burlington local roads that prove most challenging for the Grindstone Marsh turtles bisect their habitat – Plains Rd West, Spring Gardens Road, and Unsworth Avenue. These are the area’s earliest established travel routes (~1800) next to this rich biological area, and fully within the turtles’ critical habitat. These road challenges have resulted in ongoing special project funds to help with overall Blanding’s Turtle recovery project support work, including but not limited to keeping them off the roads as well as tracking the adult females to protect their eggs and eventually transfer the vulnerable hatchlings into a regional “headstarting” program.

Overview Image of Grindstone Creek Marsh in Burlington Ontario (Google Maps).
Overview Image of Grindstone Creek Marsh in Burlington Ontario (Google Maps).

For several years these funds have been provided to RBG through small donors, and through financial support from the Government of Canada via the Department of Environment and Climate Change Habitat Stewardship Program. In 2023 funds were augmented by a contribution from Parks Canada to the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System Ecological Corridor Pilot Program, part of which was used to dramatically increase existing small animal roadside barriers (centered on turtles) at the roads noted above to reduce further road mortality.

nesting Female Blanding’s Turtle at the Hendrie Garden Fence Wildlife Barrier by Plains Road.
2023 June nesting Female Blanding’s Turtle at the Hendrie Garden Fence Wildlife Barrier by Plains Road. Funding for Wildlife Barrier addition provided by Federal Habitat Stewardship Program in 2022. Photo courtesy of Jeff Leader, RBG Volunteer.

This large-scale effort inspires many residents and volunteers to be part of the program. The combined efforts may just be enough to keep the Blanding’s Turtle from disappearing locally.  To complement 2023’s roadkill mitigation work, in August 2023 a subgroup of seven “Head-started” Blanding’s Turtles (juveniles hand-raised for two years at the licensed facility Scales Nature Park) were returned to Hendrie Valley from past years’ efforts, while another 29 hatchlings were sent off to the Headstart program for their two-year stint at Scales Nature Park. Once they are released and grow to maturity, this will double our current known population of Blanding’s Turtles in RBG’s wetlands – setting a new hopeful future for this species in this highly urbanized region and with a much lower risk of finding their way onto a busy road.

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