You’d think it would take something very big or potentially catastrophic to stop an Airbus A380 or a Boeing 747 from taking off at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the busiest in North America in terms of international traffic. But just a couple of weeks ago, on June 29, 2011, a turtle — or more precisely, 150 turtles — managed the feat.
Looking for a sandy beach in which to lay their eggs, more than a hundred diamondback terrapin turtles sauntered onto JFK’s runways, delaying several flights. Airport staff then had to rush in to encourage the slow-moving reptiles to hustle along their way, so that the planes could take off.
But this isn’t the first time the turtles have tried to cross the traffic-heavy complex. In fact, in 2009, there were similar news stories flooding communication outlets. According to conservation biologist Russell Burke of Hofstra University in New York, about one thousand terrapins live in Jamaica Bay between Brooklyn and Queens, and the population near JFK could be ten times that. And every mating season, the turtles leave their salt-marsh homes and breeding grounds near the airport in search of sandy, open areas where they can lay their eggs and bury them in the ground. The runways just happen to be in their path.
So when our human “migrations” intersect with the journeys of other animals, who should have the right of way?
The slow march of elders
Prized and subsequently overharvested for turtle soup in the early nineteenth century, diamondback terrapins have been protected in New York since early 1990. Recently, however, their population numbers have declined, probably due to the degradation of the area’s salt marshes. Nitrogen dumped from the New York City sewer system and rising ocean levels are the likely causes. Another problem is that the terrapin population skews toward the elderly — and it’s not being replaced by a younger generation. It’s estimated that urban raccoons devour 90 to 100 percent of the eggs laid by the Jamaica Bay terrapins during breeding season. The turtles on the runway seen a few weeks ago could be the same individuals that were reported as being there when the airport first opened in the 1940s.
Turtles serve as a barometer of a wetland’s health, so watching their numbers is important to conservation biologists. But when millions of dollars are at stake — such as at our nation’s busiest airport — it’s hard to know whose right of passage should supersede: ours or the turtles’?
Walkways for the wild
Two thousand miles away, a Western state is dealing with a similar problem but on the larger end of the biological scale. In Wyoming, the oil and gas industries have brought an influx of people and truck traffic into the western part of the state, along with miles of paved roads — some of which are built across a six-thousand-year-old pronghorn antelope migration route.
Each fall, when heavy snows make it difficult for them to graze, hundreds of pronghorn leave Grand Teton National Park for their wintering grounds 150 miles to the southeast. They return to the park each spring in order to give birth to their calves. Unfortunately, motorists kill dozens of these pronghorn every year. But the state of Wyoming believes it may have a solution that will benefit the pronghorn and ensure the safety of the state’s drivers: they are investing $9.7 million to construct a wildlife overpass, to be completed by September 2012.
New York, too, has been looking at solutions to its turtle problem on its runways. The Port Authority has been exploring ideas such as building plastic barriers that won’t impede the planes and can be removed after breeding season. Another option being considered is providing artificial breeding areas closer to the ocean to tempt the turtles away from their normal path across the busy airport tarmacs.
Such proposed tactics bring up an interesting eco-ethical question: when our and other species’ “migrations” are at cross-purposes, is it better to respect their ancient routes and build around them — perhaps incurring extra costs in the millions of dollars — or should we displace them onto an alternate course?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,