Flattened fauna need help

  • Don't tread on me: painted turtle

    Milo Burcham
  For decades, Route 93 between Missoula, Mont., and Glacier National Park has earned a reputation as a dangerous stretch of highway. A bumper sticker from the 1960s reads: "Pray for me, I drive 93." Now it seems drivers aren't the only ones in danger. Hundreds of western painted turtles that live in pothole wetlands are dying on the road as well.

The slow-moving turtles cross the highway through the Mission Valley as they migrate from pond to pond. Many don't make it, says Dale Becker, who manages wildlife programs for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. He doesn't know exactly how many have died, but says he's "mucked a lot of turtles off the road." In 1995, researcher Suzie Fowle spent the summer studying the impact of highway traffic on the turtle populations; she says she collected 205 flattened turtles in one 4.5-mile stretch.

Although the turtle is not an endangered species, says Fowle, the wetlands may contain vulnerable subpopulations. Though research doesn't conclude whether the turtles are seriously threatened because of roadkill, she says, "It is easier to knock the turtle down faster than it will be able to recover." Her solution: low fences to divert the turtles through culverts under the road.

But the painted turtle is up against a road block. The state and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes disagree over the future of Route 93. The state Department of Transportation wants to widen the road from two to four lanes. The wider road could be safer for humans but add twice as much pavement for turtles to cross. The tribes are resisting widening Route 93, which bisects the Flathead Indian Reservation, on the grounds that a four-lane highway will encourage speeding and bring more development close to the reservation.

For more information, contact Jim Weaver, district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, at 406/523-5800; or the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at 406/243-5372.

*Sara Phillips
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