Concerned about the decline in the snapping turtle population, staff at the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne have been taking "spe-shell" care of turtles and their eggs.
"There's certain places that have turtles that people see most years, and people notice when turtles are gone," said Kayla Sunday, environment program manager at the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA).
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed snapping turtles as "special concern" in 2008, and the species was listed as special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2011.
Sunday said although it's difficult to monitor the population in Akwesasne, habitat loss and degradation as well as accidental mortality are concerns.
A priority for her team is protecting eggs from vulnerable nests and enhancing hatchling survival rates.
This clutch, or group of eggs produced by a snapping turtle, was relocated and incubated as a way to enhance hatchling survival rates. (Submitted by Melanie Alguire)
"We're encroaching on their habitat," said Sunday.
"There's so many other areas that we have already meddled with natural law that has made it almost impossible for this species to survive without intervention."
Clutch relocated and incubated
Earlier this summer, staff found a turtle clutch, or group of eggs, along the side of the road in Tsi Snaihne, one of the three districts in the Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) community straddling the Quebec, Ontario and New York state borders.
They decided to relocate and incubate the clutch — a first for the program. Melanie Alguire, environmental educator at the MCA, said the experience was both exciting and nerve wracking.
"You have to be super careful because as soon as they roll, they can be non-viable. So we have to treat them like little bombs, practically," said Alguire.
Eleven turtles, including this one, hatched after 65 days of incubation at the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne offices. (Submitted by Melanie Alguire)
Alguire said they received equipment and guidance from Parks Canada.
The team works closely with Parks Canada and the Thousand Islands Provincial Park, including on a reptile and amphibian recovery and education project that focuses on species recovery and public outreach.
"Thousand Islands National Park and Akwesasne have a long and positive working relationship and the success of this year's turtle incubation program is another clear example of the benefits of this strong working relationship," Parks Canada said in a statement.
Turtle 'release party'
After 65 days, 11 of the 49 eggs hatched. Community members were invited to a "release party" last week to celebrate releasing the turtles back into their natural habitat.
They were released in wetlands a kilometre away from where the eggs were found.
"I think it's also important to involve not only the community but the children, because that's the future of our environment," said Alguire.
"If you get them involved early, especially with a hands-on experience like that, they'll be really interested in, captivated by the experience."
Community members of all ages were invited to release the snapping turtles back into wetlands in the territory last week. (Mohawk Council of Akwesasne/Facebook)
Sunday echoed the importance of community involvement. As a part of their conservation efforts, they encourage community members who spot turtle nests to contact environment staff with the location so that nest boxes can be added. Sunday said the community has been keen on the initiative.
"People are working with us to give these turtles the best opportunity that we can, which is really, really awesome," she said.
"We love that."