TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — On her daily drive to classes at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, Amber Slaughterbeck kept encountering a sad scene alongside the highway.

The remains of turtles, killed by vehicular traffic, littered the roadway.

"I saw all these dead turtles, and I just couldn't take it anymore," she said. "So I started saving them."

That was August 2010. Since then, Slaughterbeck has rescued more than 1,200 turtles. She finds the slow-crawling reptiles as they approach U.S. 40, attempting to cross from the south side to the north side, near the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area in West Terre Haute. Using a bucket (for smaller species) or her hands (for the big turtles), the 28-year-old Terre Haute woman carries the animals safely to their destination.

She began her project with little scientific knowledge of turtles. As a youngster growing up in Lafayette, she often found turtles at a nearby creek. "I was always taking them home and putting them in boxes, trying to get them to eat," Slaughterbeck recalled. Aside from that experience, her rescue efforts have taught Slaughterbeck everything she knows about the creatures' tendencies and traits.

Today, she's president of the Environmental Concentration Sustainability Club. Her background includes work as a home-repair contractor and in restaurant service, and an associate's degree in science from Ivy Tech Community College.

She "kind of dropped off the face of the earth" after the death of her father. Later, encouraged by her husband, Woods professor Chris Hudson, Slaughterbeck returned to college at SMWC, where she majors in social science and history and minors in environmental studies. She's a junior and the mother of a 5-year-old daughter.

In her off time, she goes "to all things Wabashiki." That wetlands preserve, which opened to the public in 2009, includes 7,000 acres along the Wabash River in West Terre Haute and is part of a continuous 43,000-acre wildlife habitat set aside by the state of Indiana, the federal government and conservation groups. Slaughterbeck is a familiar face at the Wabashiki meetings and work-days.

"Everybody pretty much knows me — and I don't mind — as the 'turtle girl,'" she said, grinning. "If that puts a face to the turtles that are dying, that's fine."

Some turtle species are faring better than others in Indiana. Populations of Eastern box turtles, with large, domed shells, are considered in trouble nationwide, and Indiana laws protect them from being collected, explained Dean Zimmerman, district biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources for the past 40 years. Likewise, the musk, spotted and Blanding turtles' numbers in the state are somewhat fragile. By contrast, snappers — large turtles drawn to waterways such as the Wabash — are thriving, while soft-shell turtles are doing well, Zimmerman said.

Gauging the size and health of turtle populations can be difficult, said Brian MacGowan, extension wildlife specialist at Purdue University. Because the animals often live for decades, researchers could encounter the same turtles year after year, concluding the numbers are stable, even though the turtles' offspring may be fewer, MacGowan said.

Wildlife scientists have found more female turtles than males around roadways, as the mothers seek nesting areas. "They'll go up on land to find a nesting site," MacGowan said. That pursuit of a safe place to care for their young leads to the turtles' hazardous treks through traffic.

Slaughterbeck keeps a journal of the turtles she rescues as they try to cross U.S. 40 by Wabashiki and the railroad tracks crossing U.S. 150. She documents the sex, species and size before releasing them near the banks of the Wabash. She's handled six different species, from the massive snappers which she carefully and quickly lugs by hand, to the smaller musk, Eastern mud, midland painted, and red-eared slider varieties she totes in a bucket.

Because she gathers the turtles beside highways, Slaughterbeck wears a fluorescent vest, along with hiking boots. Though she initially dealt with some taunts from passers-by, "Some people have been really supportive and expressed thanks," she said.

Besides the dangers the turtles face from vehicular traffic at U.S. 40, many also have been killed by trains near the tracks that bisect U.S. 150. In rescuing turtles there, Slaughterbeck has discovered (and reported to authorities) the remains of killed dogs, elements of meth labs and shotgun shells.

"It's pretty gnarly," she said.

The plight of the turtles keeps her going back, day after day, from April through November when the turtles are moving.

"She's out there religiously," said Melanie Alvey, a friend who's helped Slaughterbeck on rescue missions.

In addition to turtles and the troubling items dumped by the railroad tracks, they've also found road-killed beavers and an otter, and much discarded garbage.

"Sometimes, Amber would pick up turtles and I would just pick up trash," Alvey said.

The peak moments when the turtles start crawling toward the north side of U.S. 40 come when temperatures hover between the 60s and the 80s, Slaughterbeck said, and rain has just fallen. If the temperature hits 90 degrees, the turtles hunker down.

"If it would rain, and then the sun came out after, they were everywhere," Slaughterbeck said. "If it ever was like that, I would just drop everything and get out there."

Occasionally, she finds a turtle wounded by traffic and will delicately nurse it back to health before releasing it.

The task of sparing the turtles from injury or death is large, Slaughterbeck quickly discovered.

"In the first week, it was pretty clear I was getting into something bigger than I anticipated," she recalled.

Because the water levels change in the wetlands area, turtles such as snappers head to the backwaters of the Wabash just to the north. The highway bisects their path. "They're just trying to get to water," Slaughterbeck said.

"I think their ancestors have followed that path, and they don't have any other way go under the road, so they go over," she added.

Ideally, Slaughterbeck hopes some sort of crossing, such as a culvert, could be developed.

The difficulties caused by turtles treading over busy roadways led the Indiana Department of Transportation to install a "turtle fence" along the Wabash River bridge over Interstate 74 in Fountain County in 2010. That 8-inch-tall barrier, made from salvaged materials, leads turtles to turn back, rather than cross the interstate. It's a safety measure for the animals, as well as motorists who might swerve to miss the turtles.

In the meantime, Slaughterbeck plans to continue her cause.

"It's something I care about," she said, "and I'm not going to rest until I know the poor things have a safe crossing."