Data gathered about roadkill on Maine’s roads for the last 10 years is now being used to help protect animals.

A Maine Audubon online database allows people who see roadkill to assist in the information gathering process, said Sarah Haggerty, a conservation biologist and GIS manager for the wildlife conservation organization.

The online database is part of a three-year program to identify hot spots where animals are getting hit the most and come up with a solution. It is a joint undertaking of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, Maine Audubon, and University of California-Davis. The groups are trying to see what can be done to prevent animals from being killed by traffic, Haggerty said.

Fraser Shilling, a co-director of the Road Ecology Center at UC-Davis, said that engaging and involving the public is really important to the project.

Shilling is helping build Maine a new reporting system that could be rolled out sometime this year. In the new system, all people would have to do is take a photo and press “upload.” If the phone’s location is enabled, it will automatically be mapped. Funds for the project are generated from sales of the loon license plate.

About 10 years ago, the center developed a roadkill reporting system for California, Shilling said. Maine Audubon saw the system and decided it wanted one. The Road Ecology Center developed a system for Maine in 2010.

Both of the systems were designed to allow anyone to report roadkill, but Maine’s also allows people to report live animals they see on the road.

A section of the program is the Turtle Roadkill Survey, which focuses on turtles because they have a higher potential for being killed.

“Citizen scientists” are recruited and trained to identify and study roads when turtles are the most active, between May and September. Having citizen scientists expands the geographic coverage dramatically because there is a limited number of wildlife biologists in Maine, Haggerty said.

“The (volunteer’s) role is huge,” she said. “Their importance is huge.”

Unlike the California program, the Maine reporting system educates people about the wildlife and vehicle conflict process.

Shilling added that not every person needs to get involved, but it is important to get about one person per road as a minimum. Maine has better coverage than California because it has more willing participants per mile and Maine has funding for the program, while California does not.

“Maine Audubon has actively engaged people and done trainings,” Shilling said.

A snapping turtle approaches the center line of Vaughan Road in Hallowell in June. Reptiles and amphibians, as well as other animals — such as deer — all travel across roads in Maine. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The hot spots are usually places associated with water or where roads go through natural habitats like forests. Turtles are drawn to lay their eggs on the roadsides because the areas are usually flat and sandy, which they are attracted to. This puts the female turtles and the hatchlings in danger.

“A turtle’s defense mechanism is to freeze and camouflage, which does not work very well for cars,” Haggerty said.

Phillip deMaynadier, a wildlife biologist at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said turtles’ shells have evolved for millions of years to avoid mortality. Their biggest threat is predators, against which it defends well.

Turtles are especially in danger because they don’t reproduce until they are about 10 years old or older. When younger turtles are killed, the population can suffer.

Research suggests that if 2% to 3% of adult turtles are killed annually, the local population could go extinct. If the local population is small enough, it could happen in a short period of time, Haggerty said.

There aren’t as many hot spots in Maine with deer or moose, Shilling said, because there is lower development across the state, so animals can get hit almost anywhere.

When a bigger animal like a moose is killed, it affects the environment differently than smaller animals. A 10,000-acre wetland can probably support a small herd of about 20 moose and 100,000 newts. If 10 moose are killed, it has a much bigger impact on the ecosystem than if 10 newts are killed.

“It takes a lot of nature to support a large animal and if you hit one, you’re impacting nature in a bigger way than if you hit a small animal,” Shilling said.

A problem with small animals, however, is that they are less visible. This can mean that even though people are killing them, the overall rate may not be as noticeable.

One way to combat animals going onto roads are tunnels that go underneath roads. Haggerty said most of these have been installed in the past year. Adding these tunnels can be expensive, she said, and an estimate is hard to calculate because it depends on several factors, including how wide and how long the tunnel needs to be, and whether the road is in a wetland area.

While amphibians and reptiles can tolerate tunnels, trying to funnel them through a single tunnel does not work well. There need to be multiple tunnels underneath a road.

Another option to help reduce the number of animals killed is slowing drivers down. Since speeding is the number one contributor to accidents, including hitting animals, Shilling said, it is important for people to respect the limit.

This can be done by increasing the number of police officers on patrol or by using things like rumble strips.

Road signs are also important to bring attention to drivers. Some signs with flashing lights are only put up seasonally when turtles are more likely to be moving. This is done so people don’t get sign fatigue, Haggerty said.

Local people have put their own signs up, which is almost as effective as the road signs, she said.


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