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It may be slow to catch on, but high school students have built new nesting mounds as protection for endangered Turtles

'High school students have created artificial nesting mounds as a way to protect Blandings Turtles
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Blandings Turtles, are smaller than a snapping turtle, and are sometimes referred to as Ontario's smiling turtle. Unfortunately they're also crawled their way on to the endangered species.

A group of North Bay high school students representing Widdifield, West Ferris and Chippewa Secondary schools, with help from the North Bay Mattawa Conservation Authority, have built two artificial nesting mounds at the La Vase  Portages Conservation Area as a means to protect the species. 

Troy Storms is Supervisor of Field Operations for the Conservation Authority.

"What we want to do is mitigate their travel because we don't want them going out to the highway. The La Vase Portages Conservation Area is located beside the highway, (Hwy 17 East) and turtles like the road because of the gravel. So if we can put the nesting sites in the park, in their natural environment, they won't have to travel out to the highway and become a potential hazard."

The mostly grade 11 and 12 students hauled gravel down a long narrow trail to the site to build the mound. They also erected fencing as a barrier to keep people off the gravel, but also to provide a place to watch the turtles without disturbing them when they return in the spring. Signs will eventually be added to the site,  providing information on the Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund stewardship project.   

"The mounds are made out of gravel that has fine silt in it, and some medium and larger size coarse rocks, perfect for turtles to nest in. The gravel heats up in the spring and it becomes an incubator for the eggs," explains Storms.

"In the spring we're going to mount field cameras to monitor the date and time, and the number of turtles coming to the nest. Hopefully, we'll get to see turtles dig their holes and potentially lay some eggs. After about 40 days or so, the cameras could take pictures of the young ones hatching."

Karen Bond, a business teacher at West Ferris Secondary School, explains that the young people working on the project are Specialist High Skills Major Business and Environment students. 

"We started this as a project about a year and a half ago. Within the SHSM there's a new type of training called ICE training; Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship training. So we focused ours on the Great Lakes and our local watershed. We posed a challenge to those business students to come up with solutions facing our local watershed. They, in turn, went to Toronto and pitched their ideas as part of 16 other Ontario school boards that went to the summit."

Bond says the students presented their solutions to a number of high-level decision-makers including Glen Murray, who at the time was Ontario's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. 

"When the summit was finished, it was those decision makers that posed the challenge to our students saying 'why don't you think about taking this to the next step and apply for the Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund?'. So the students a year ago said 'yes, let's do that.' They put in an application last winter and then we found out last July that they had been awarded $21,300 to do a four-part project that was part of the fund. We were the only board in Ontario to be approved to do a project, so that's quite remarkable."

In addition to building the artificial mounds, the students have planted a natural berm between the city yards and the adjacent wetland, they also did some seeding of some milkweed pods that may help the Monarch butterflies have a new natural habitat. They are also planning to do some shoreline restoration and clean up in the spring along Parks Creek, Chippewa Creek, and the North Bay waterfront.

Bond says the group has also purchased some new water quality testing equipment that the students at all three high schools will be able to use in the future. to do some on-going assessments to test the quality of the local watershed.

"What they take away is the opportunity to get some experiential learning in the field, an authentic real-world situation and work with some local employers to have that opportunity to explore some different opportunities that may exist for them in their local community," says Bond."Also the idea that they're learning about stewardship and giving back while trying to protect the Great Lakes and their local watershed." 

The project entails four parts; the Blandings Turtles artificial mounds, the planting of a natural berm between the city yards and the adjacent wetland, and seeding of some milkweed pods which may help monarch butterflies have a new natural habitat. The group will also do some shoreline restoration and clean up in the spring at Parks Creek, Chippewa Creek, and the North Bay waterfront.

"Lastly we also purchased some new water quality testing equipment that students in all three high schools will be able to use in the future to do some on-going assessments as to how our local watershed is actually doing in terms of quality," said Bond.

Grade 12 student  Mac Vitunski, was one of the students who attended the Toronto summit. The West Ferris student plans to eventually become a teacher, and says he would like to any future students of his, have a similar experience.

"It's incredible just to see all the hard work we've done leading up to this, actually come to life and make a difference."  says Vitunski."I've learned that turtles are an important part of the ecosystem and we do need to save them."

Fellow West Ferris student, Reid Lawton, says the project has become personal.

"I was there from the start, and being able to see it from beginning to end means a lot. I can see how it actually helps the environment, and I want to do my part to save the turtles," says Lawton. "I have seen turtles that have been run over but I didn't know how many get hit. You don't really think about it until you see the numbers and realize they really are an endangered species and you want to help.This has been a good experience." 

Troy Storms says the group is looking forward to next spring to see if the turtles will make use of the mounds. 

"We're going to mount field cameras to monitor the date and time and the turtles coming to the nest. Hopefully, we'll get to see turtles dig their holes and potentially lay some eggs. So after about 40 days or so, the cameras could take pictures of the young ones hatching."




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