June 12, 2000

Biologist uses fences to stem turtle deaths

Scripps Howard News Service

TALLAHASSEE -- Turtle biologist Matt Aresco is a man with a mission: to save as many freshwater turtles as he can from getting killed while trying to cross U.S. Highway 27.

The fatally slow-moving critters have been getting killed by the score in their flight from drought shriveled Lake Jackson to Little Lake Jackson on the other side of the road.

Back in February, Aresco counted 85 turtles killed, most of them common cooters and yellowbelly sliders, along a half mile stretch of the road.

Other species risking the treacherous crossing have include mud turtles, musk turtles and Florida softshells.

Though those species are not rare, the local population northwest of the state capital was getting hammered.

''Since then, I've found several hundred dead ones,'' says the Florida State University graduate student.

''At rush hour it's a conveyor belt out there,'' Aresco said. ''It's nonstop cars. You couldn't ignore it. No telling how many would have died if I did.''

Since April 18th, when he finally began keeping track of the mission, Aresco has saved 2,100 turtles, sometimes up to 182 a day.

Meanwhile, Lake Jackson could be completely gone, if the drought doesn't let up soon.

''That lake is nothing more than a couple pools now,'' according to David Cook, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. ''Over the years, it dries periodically due to sinkholes. It's a natural occurrence that happens every 25 years or so.''

Still, with much of Lake Jackson's original population now gone, Aresco still manages to save up to 30 turtles a day -- not to mention the two 3- to 4-foot alligators he has caught and released.