FSU Doctoral Student Pours His Sould Into Saving Turtles

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


October 28, 2002
CONTACT: Matt Aresco (850) 562-3093

A trip out to Lake Jackson north of Tallahassee turned an FSU doctoral student into a zealous advocate for saving thousands of turtles from certain death on U.S. Highway 27.

Matthew J. Aresco, a 39-year-old doctoral student from Connecticut enrolled in FSU's Department of Biological Science, drove north on U.S. 27 one day in February 2000 and was appalled to see the crushed remains of nearly 100 turtles. The turtles were killed trying to cross from Lake Jackson on the east side of the highway over to Little Lake Jackson on the west side.

What Aresco came to realize was the carnage was just beginning.

The turtle exodus resulted from a major sinkhole opening under 4,000-acre Lake Jackson, draining the lake and leaving the lake's reptiles and amphibians without a home. The root of the problem was that U.S. 27 was built directly across a one-half mile stretch of northwest Lake Jackson decades ago, creating a virtually impassable migration barrier to turtles and other wildlife.

"They were simply trying to cross the highway and get to water," Aresco said. "This has been something I couldn't sit by and watch."

After several trips to identify and count the species of turtles being killed on U.S. 27, Aresco went before the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and received some help.

"They gave me 20 rolls of 100-foot long nylon silt fence (two feet high), and I rented a gas-powered trenching tool and went to work," he said.

Working mostly by himself, he erected a 3,000-foot temporary fence barrier on the east side of the highway with six inches of the fence buried underground. On the west side of the highway he put up a 2,000-foot fence. On a number of occasions his work, which drew both jeers and appreciation from motorists, had to be interrupted while he rescued turtles trying to cross areas where the fence wasn't up.

"The idea behind the drift fence was to stop the turtles from getting on the highway," Aresco said.

Aresco monitored the fence 2-4 times daily over the last 30 months to count and move turtles. He carried large Rubbermaid tubs and stopped to pick up every turtle and other amphibian and reptile trying to find its way across or around the fence.

"Some days, particularly during the heaviest migration movements from May to July, I picked up as many as 300 turtles a day, but sometimes I'd find snakes or frogs, and I'd move them across as well," he said. "The largest number of turtles are Florida cooters, followed by sliders and five other turtle species."

Thus far Aresco has picked up, measured and moved 8,016 turtles across U.S. 27. He identified another 570 that were killed on the highway. He said some turtles and other animals made it safely through the sole culvert under U.S. 27 to Little Lake Jackson but he didn't know how many.

Aresco estimates he's spent $2,000 - $3,000 of his own money in the effort, but he said every penny he's spent on the project has been worth it. His work to save the turtles also prompted him to change his doctoral work, which he anticipates will be finished in 18 months, to a study of the ecological relationship between Lake Jackson's sliders and cooters and their role in lake food webs.

Lake Jackson's water level is slowly returning, but that hasn't stopped Aresco from making daily trips to check the fences and lobbying government officials to find a permanent solution. Due to the fact the highway is built over the lake bottom, turtles and other species continually attempt to cross that stretch of U.S. 27 even during non-drought periods. Aresco has created a web site to raise public awareness of the problem: www.lakejacksonturtles.org.

Recently, he's appeared before the Leon County Commission and FDOT asking for their support to secure funding and build a permanent wildlife wall and culvert system such as that in Payne's Prairie Ecopassage Project. The funds would come from transportation programs specifically budgeted to address environmental mitigation of highway impacts, such as the Federal highway enhancement program.

Payne's Prairie Ecopassage involved construction of a series of barrier walls and underpasses, along U.S. 441 across Payne's Prairie near Gainesville, to reduce the road mortality of reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. The FDOT project at Paynes Prairie was completed in 2001 at a cost of $3.8 million.


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