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125-year-old turtle missing from rural Ontario wetlands

Leora Berman sounds unsure whether to refer to Grace — a one-eyed, roughly 10-kilogram, more-than-a-century-old female snapping turtle — in the past or present tense. 

Berman, the founder of a nonprofit that protects turtles and their habitats, says there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of Grace since September 2021, when she was spotted returning to her winter hibernation site in the Municipality of Dysart et al, located nearly 300 kilometres west of Ottawa. 

“It’s hard to talk about,” Berman said of Grace’s prolonged absence despite “the entire community watching” for her in 2022.

But Berman’s group, Turtle Guardians, hasn’t given up the search just yet. 

“We’ll certainly be looking for Grace in the next few years,” she said.

“But we feel it’s unlikely we’re going to see her again because it’s highly unusual not to see a turtle who has such regular habits.”

‘I thought she was pretty gorgeous’

Turtle Guardians has had its eye on Grace since 2018. 

According to Berman, Grace’s carapace measures about 38 centimetres, “which makes her a very old turtle” — at least 125 years. She is the oldest recorded female snapping turtle south of Algonquin Park from the Georgian Bay coast to the Ottawa Valley, Berman said. 

“I thought she was pretty gorgeous,” she said. 

A bus driver first alerted Turtle Guardians to Grace when she was in the middle of rush hour traffic.

Grace the turtle known to Haliburton County
Grace weighs more than nine kilograms, says Leora Berman, the founder of Turtle Guardians. ‘That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re trying to lift that in the form of a snapping turtle, that’s pretty hefty.’ (Submitted by Leora Berman)

Since then, the group has enlisted locals to help keep track of Grace, including putting up posters and offering $125 gift cards for confirmed sightings, with “many, many reports” over the years, Berman said. 

But the trail ran cold in 2022, which has Turtle Guardians concerned about what may have happened to Grace. 

Wetlands filled in, conservation group says

According to Berman, the wetlands in Haliburton, Ont., where Grace routinely hibernated have been gradually filled in in recent years. 

A January 2022 photo taken by Berman showed part of the area covered with dirt. The work was done by a private landowner, she said, who was informed about Grace’s presence in the area.

“We didn’t see her after the site was filled. I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Berman said. 

Grace the turtle known to Haliburton County
Grace, last spotted in September 2021 as she returned to her winter hibernation site, has only one eye. (Submitted by Leora Berman)

In an email, Murray Fearrey, the mayor of Dysart et al, said he was aware Grace had not been seen for some time, that he understands the value of turtles to the ecosystem, but that he did not know why she’s gone missing.

Asked about the filling in of the lands, he said the area “has been a work in progress for several years” but that the municipality’s official plan and current policies on wetlands are now “much more restrictive and protective to all species.”

‘The front line in environmental protection’

Berman is questioning how the filling work was allowed to happen given the area, just southwest of Haliburton’s core, is partly zoned for environmental protection.

In an email, Jeff Iles, the municipality’s director of planning and land information, said Dysart et al’s zoning bylaw does not protect against site preparation and alteration — yet.

“[This] is why there is a need for a site alteration bylaw, which the municipality is currently working on,” he said. 

The municipality’s official plan does protect against site alteration in wetlands but can only be enforced at the time of development, he said.

“The municipality does not and did not have a development application for the subject lands,” he said. “Therefore [we] are/were unable to apply the [official plan] policies.”

Berman said the episode underscores the need to properly protect local wetlands and the animals that call them home.

“The municipalities are the front line in environmental protection,” she said. 

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