A big day for tiny turtles in Lake Champlain

NORTH HERO, Vt. (WCAX) A threatened species is getting a boost in Lake Champlain.

Back in March, we told you about spiny softshell turtles overwintering at the ECHO Leahy Center in Burlington. The Head Start program is a partnership between the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and ECHO to give the turtles-- you guessed it-- a head start.

People sponsor the turtles and in the summer they're released back into the lake. Wednesday morning, the turtles were set free in North Hero.

"When I started on this project, the raccoons and skunks were pretty much getting every single nest everywhere I went," said Steve Parron, a biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

Parron tells the small crowd of kids and parents that a tiny turtle is a sumptuous snack for predators.

"I think of baby turtles as Oreos with legs. If they fit, they go down the gullet," he said.

But thanks to overwintering at ECHO Leahy Center instead of hibernating, these spiny softshell and map turtles are twice the size of other year-old turtles. When they go into the lake, that extra size may make a difference.

The Cairns family from Shelburne made the trip up to the Islands to help out with the release. It's becoming a tradition for 6-year-old Hanna and 11-year-old Madeline.

Hanna Cairns: It didn't feel like last time because last time the turtle scratched me.
Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Oh, my gosh! And so this year, what happened when you picked it up?
Hanna Cairns: It didn't scratch me. (laughs)

"They're not feisty animals. They're kind of relaxed," Madeline Cairns said. "They're squirmy, but they're relaxed."

Their mom understands lessons outdoors make the biggest impressions on young minds.

"This shows the kids one way that we can care for animals and do just a little something to help them survive," mom Jen Cairns said.

Survival is the goal. Only about 1 percent of eggs actually make it to the breeding age of 14. This effort aims to change that.

"Anything we can do to support only 300 animals in a population is important," said Steve Smith of the ECHO Leahy Center.

Their work isn't quite done for the day. Parron says he will be back out on the shores a little bit later, making sure the turtles they just released don't become a snack for hungry raccoons later. After that, they're on their own.