Day 10 of Ostrander Point: Dr. Frederic Beaudry on Blanding’s turtle
[Report on April 3rd ERT Hearing by Paula Peel, APPEC member]
The Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) focused on PECFN’s witness, Frederic Beaudry, PhD in Wildlife Ecology, and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Alfred University. His publications include four on Blanding’s turtles. The other parties did not dispute Dr. Beaudry’s qualifications, and Robert Wright, one of the ERT Panel Co-Chairs, qualified him as “an expert on Blanding’s turtles”.
Dr. Beaudry’s Presentation
A. Population Ecology
Dr. Beaudry implicitly confirmed the prior testimony of road ecologist Kari Gunson on the biology of Blanding’s turtles: slow maturity, low reproductive rate, and vulnerability of hatchlings to predation.
B. Habitat Ecology
Dr. Beaudry explained the need for specific habitats. Wetlands with good sun exposure and food resources are essential. In the early spring foods such as tadpoles, mosquito larvae, salamanders are present in wetlands that tend to be shallow and temporary. In May and June turtles move towards nesting sites. Turtles have been observed moving 10-15 km in a season. They are particularly vulnerable when on roads. In late summer and fall they return to wetlands with good sun exposure and sufficient depth so as not to freeze to the bottom. All habitats are available at Ostrander Point.
Dr. Beaudry considers the proposed mitigations as doubtful:
- Once roads are open to the public, signs and speed limits are ineffective. Studies show no reduction in road mortality. Computer models indicate that 2% mortality from roads results in a declining population.
- Provision of a nearby alternative site raises the question of why turtles are not presently occupying it. Relocation of other turtle species has not been successful.
- Culverts, as proposed by the Ministry of the Environment, are not feasible because a study shows that Blanding’s turtles move in large sweeping arcs, not in the straight lines required for culvert crossings.
Dr. Beaudry concluded that access roads at Ostrander Point would cause serious and irreversible harm to the Blanding’s turtle. Not having roads there in the first place is the only way to prevent serious and irreversible damage to the population.
Ministry of Environment Cross-examination
Sarah Kromkamp, lawyer for the Ministry of Environment, asked whether road kills are likely to cause harm if during active periods for turtles there are no construction and maintenance activities. Dr. Beaudry replied that if roads are closed to the public and are never used except in the winter, then road kills are not likely.
Kromkamp wanted to know how to determine the density of turtle populations. Dr. Beaudry said that systematic trapping would need to be done for two years in order to make comparisons. He added that he is not aware of any attempt by Stantec to identify the distribution density.
Kromkamp asked whether the population of Blanding’s turtles in this area is robust because it is estimated that 10,000 individuals are in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence District. Dr. Beaudry responded that the figure covers the entire Great Lakes District which extends to the American Midwest, including Illinois and Wisconsin.
Ms. Krompkamp also asked about the risk from ATV usage. Dr. Beaudry said that ATVs do increase opportunities for poaching for the illegal pet trade and that poaching is a big problem. However, in terms of vehicular mortality, he considered cars a bigger risk.
Gilead Power Cross-examination
Bryn Gray, lawyer for Gilead Power, questioned Dr. Beaudry’s use of the term “serious harm”. Dr. Beaudry said that generally he meant whatever can lead to lower reproductive rates and population declines.
Gray grilled Dr. Beaudry extensively about mitigations. Grey cited a report by Dr. Beaudry that suggests mitigations such as signs, fencing, and volunteers to assist road crossings. Gray noted that in another study Dr. Beaudry was able to predict “hot moments” when Blanding’s turtles were particularly at risk for road mortality, and mitigation involved timely road closures. Dr. Beaudry said that he doesn’t recommend all mitigations but some are useful when roads have been in place since colonial times.
Gray asked Dr. Beaudry about his recommendations regarding artificial nesting sites. Dr. Beaudry agreed that artificial nest sites could steer females away from roads during nesting seasons. However, he noted once again that this is where roads have been present for a long time and options are limited. That is not the situation at Ostrander Point.
PECFN lawyer Natalie Smith asked about the importance of a site visit. Dr. Beaudry said that nothing short of a field study would provide useful information. Was he aware of the impacts of wind farms? Dr. Beaudry replied that the issue is roads, not wind farms. The roads at Ostrander Point are a serious concern because they are in the midst of, rather than adjacent to, turtle habitats. He said mitigation measures have the potential to reduce mortalities in any given year but not eliminate road mortality. There would be serious and irreversible harm to the population from 1-2 percent mortality, and a fairly quick decline would start at 2 percent.
ERT Panel’s Questions
Heather Gibbs asked Dr. Beaudry to comment on the status of the Blanding’s turtle because the 2010 Stantec report designates it as a “common” species. Dr. Beaudry explained that in 2011 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ) posted the Blanding’s turtle on the Red List of “threatened” species. He noted that Blanding’s turtles occur only in northeast North America and that the IUCN status refers to the entire species. He said the likelihood is that the species will be lost.
Robert Wright asked Dr. Beaudry to comment on the consequences of losing the population of Blanding’s turtles at Ostrander Point. First, said Dr. Beaudry, the loss of a species is the loss of biodiversity. As part of the Ostrander Point ecosystem, turtles are predators of amphibians such as salamanders. Studies show that removing predators has consequences for the food chain and a “cascade of consequences” in an ecosystem. Second, Dr. Beaudry noted how hard it is to quantify the cultural value of a species but that it is essential, nonetheless, to try. There is a value in knowing of the rich biodiversity at Ostrander Point. Finally, Dr. Beaudry said that any loss of Blanding’s turtles effectively removes a “stepping stone” between populations, resulting in the isolation of nearby populations and reducing genetic diversity and species survival.