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June 16, 2013

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: A Wood’s student’s quest to save thousands of turtles

TERRE HAUTE — If you don’t like something, sometimes it’s a matter of taking it into your own hands to change it. For Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College student, Amber Slaughterbeck, that mentality couldn’t be any more true. She has made it one of her missions in life to save the turtles trying to cross from one side of the wetlands in West Terre Haute (U.S. 40) to the other.

“When you hear your first turtle get hit, you will never know another sound,” Slaughterbeck said. “It is heart wrenching.”

The start of a mass undertaking

Birds chirping, squirrels chasing each other up a tree and the sweet scent of spring flowers are some of the things we miss by driving to and from work. In August of 2009, during Slaughterbeck’s freshmen year, she would drive U.S. 150 and U.S. 40 to and from school. During her drive, she started to notice dead turtles on the side of the road. She says she probably witnessed 50 or so dead in the road during her first semester.

“If you drive down the highway it is one perspective, but if you actually take yourself out of your car and walk along the guardrail, you really get an idea how those poor turtles feel. It is scary out there. It is not exactly the most peaceful environment for them to cross in,” Slaughterbeck said.

Naturally as winter crept in, the turtles stopped crossing the road. Slaughterbeck spent that first winter stewing about what she was going to do when they came back. She expected she would start to see them again in August and had time to plan.

The warm weather hit early, and she noticed them coming out in March. She hit the ground running and helped 600 turtles successfully cross the road in her first year. She admits she had no idea what she was doing at first, except that she was helping them cross the road.

“The next summer I figured I should probably start figuring out what type they were, so I started writing down their sex, species, the time of day, where they were found and what direction they were heading,” Slaughterbeck said.

The task became too gregarious for Slaughterbeck to successfully handle on her own so she recruited a fellow classmate within the Sustainability Club at SMWC. Once her classmate figured out that it was a big task and how much Slaughterbeck really needed her, she agreed to commit herself.

Word started to spread after a story appeared by Mark Bennett in the Tribune-Star. Soon after, a third young lady jumped on board. The three of them use the Wabashiki Turtle Rescue Facebook page to communicate when one of them will have time to go out and rescue turtles for at least two hours at a time. Between the three of them, and a few pop-in volunteers, they try and cover as much time as possible during the day to help the turtles cross traffic. The guilt of not doing their part takes an emotional toll.

“I get angry with myself, when I see one that has just been killed because I was five minutes late getting out the door, or I poked around getting out of my car,” Slaughterbeck said. “All of us take it very personal because it is our responsibility to make sure they live.”

Raccoons, opossums and river otters, oh my

Turtles are more than a different type of road-kill. They play an intricate part in keeping our water clean. Simply put, they are omnivores. Anytime they are in a body of water, they enjoy eating everything from plants and bugs to algae, all in an effort to filter the water and help it to retain plenty of oxygen.

Turtles are among one of the many casualties that cross U.S. 40. Slaughterbeck has documented with ink and photos snakes, river otters, beavers, raccoons, opossums and tropical birds as casualties of oncoming traffic.

The dangers of rescuing turtles

Not to deter anyone who would want to help in the rescue efforts, but it is a very dangerous task. Volunteers have to walk along the highway and sometimes up on railroad tracks.

Slaughterbeck says she has to look over her shoulder the entire time, because you never know when a truck with a doublewide house will pass by and stick out over the guardrail. She says she understands the repercussions and will continue taking risks until something is done to protect them.

“Do I know if what we are doing is helping, or if they are surviving? No, because we haven’t physically tracked any of the ones we’ve helped across the road,” Slaughterbeck said. “I can tell you of the ones that go up on the highway, people are not swerving to miss them. I am sure we will run across a few that we have saved the year before and they get smashed this year, but at least they had another year to live. Hopefully some good is coming out of it. I can’t imagine anything bad would come from saving around 2,000 turtles.”

Potential solutions

There are successful cases in Florida and North Carolina where they have installed a fence to channel the turtles under the road, by using a culvert. Slaughterbeck is looking into the variables of implementing the following solutions locally:

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