Spiny softshell turtles make annual commute to Lake Champlain

Published: Jun. 28, 2023 at 6:35 AM EDT
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NORTH HERO, Vt. (WCAX) - Wednesday was a big day for some tiny turtles released into Lake Champlain. The spiny softshell turtles were released by the ECHO Leahy Center and Vermont Fish & Wildlife as part of an ongoing conservation program to protect the threatened species.

Racing against Wednesday’s raindrops, 17 tiny turtles made their way into Lake Champlain where they began their adult lives.

After a long journey to the Champlain Islands, it was release time for these little turtles.

The annual event always draws a crowd. Among this year’s group was Henry Willette, age 8, who was on hand with his little sister, Evelyn, and their grandparents after hearing about the event on WCAX. “We watch the news every morning and it was a short story about the turtles,” said Linda Willette.”Our grandchildren love turtles.”

It was a hands-on approach to helping the threatened turtles. They were found in disturbed nests last year and spent the winter at Echo Leahy living it up in tanks with heat and food. Now, they’ve got what Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s Toni Mikula calls a “headstart.”

“They actually have an advantage now when they’re put in the lake today over their cousins that were in the lake hibernating all winter,” Mikula said. Loss of nesting habitat is the biggest hurdle for the little turtles and Mikula says there are only three known nesting spots. “They need lake shoreline with a loose substrate, sand or small stones, and sun exposure.”

North Hero State Park is one of them, which is why it’s their annual release spot. Steve Smith of the Echo Leahy Center says this year makes 400 spiny softshell turtles released into the lake in the past 17 years, though this year’s group had some map turtles mixed in as well.

Now that they’re beyond bite-sized, the hope is that they can get the population --believed to be around 300 -- to bulk up a bit. “The true success of this is when the ones that we released many many years ago reach reproductive age and then they start reproducing, and then it really is a success and we’re hopeful that that’s happening,” Smith said.

The turtles are shy creatures so if you see them in the wild, it’s best to enjoy them from afar. If you want to see them up close, the Echo Leahy Center has an exhibit on them all the time.

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