Seven years later, is Muskegon's turtle fence effective?

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WZZM) -- The intense debate over a $318,000, federally funded turtle fence on the lakeshore basically ended in 2007, but a WZZM 13 viewer wonders after all these years, is the fence doing what it was intended to do?

The turtle fence lines both the north and southbound lanes of U.S. 31 where the highway crosses the Muskegon River flats, preventing turtles from crossing the road and being killed.

Amy Klop asked WZZM 13 News to find out if anything has been done to test the fence's effectiveness."Is it doing what it was intended to do? We doubt it," she said.

The Michigan Department of Transportation believes the fence is 95 percent effective, based on site surveys like one done on June 5. Researchers found 11 dead turtles; two were small and able to crawl through the fence and the nine others likely died sometime in the months leading up to the survey.

In 2006, before the fence was built, a one day survey found more than 60 dead turtles, most of those killed by vehicles.

"It is much safer--I have noticed a considerable difference since the fence went up," said Muskegon Township Police Chief Ken Sanford. He adds that stretch of U.S. 31 now has less wildlife for drivers to avoid, including turtles that were often the size of a basketball. Dead turtles also attracted other animals.

Officers do have to notify MDOT when the fence is damaged during traffic crashes. "In the winter months that is an area where cars tend to slid off," Sanford said.

The Muskegon County Road Commission is the agency that repairs the fence. Numbers show in 2012 fence repairs cost $12,000 and in 2013, $9,000. MDOT reimburses the road commission for the work.

While the need for the fence may always be debatable, the highway doesn't have the numerous turtle carcasses it once did every spring and summer before the fence was built.

In 2006, the turtle fence had the overwhelming support of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. The director of the organization said he too believes the fence is doing the task it was built to do and the turtle population in that area is benefiting from the fence.


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