John Rucker was a high school teacher in North Carolina around 20 years ago when his retrievers spontaneously started fetching Eastern box turtles.
Taking the dogs out in the wild to search for turtles became Rucker's hobby, and then it turned into a career when he started getting requests from researchers who wanted to study the turtles and help them survive.
Rucker’s dogs, a breed called Boykin spaniels, would find the turtles and use their soft mouths to bring their finds back to their owner without harming the animals. Once retrieved, wildlife experts would measure the turtles, look for diseases and outfit the creatures with tracking devices.
“They would track them and follow them and study them to protect them,” Rucker said. “And that’s how this whole thing got started.”
Rucker was in town recently to hunt ornate box turtles in the Braidwood Sands area of the Forest Preserve District.
The Boykin spaniels are heat tolerant and don’t mind going into thickets, so they are perfect for turtle hunting, said Rucker, who has seven dogs and used a team of six to hunt for turtles in the Will County preserve.
Rucker has been using his spaniels to hunt turtles for 20 years and the work helps wildlife experts better manage the land to make it more hospitable for native turtle species.
“When you are studying the wellbeing of box turtles, it also gives you a very good idea of the wellbeing of the entire landscape,” he said. “If box turtles in a certain area die out or vanish altogether, you know something was terribly wrong in that area. That’s one of the benefits of studying box turtles.”
The turtle tracking season runs from mid-April through early August. Rucker travels from northern Illinois to Oak Ridge Tennessee with his pups to do the work. Most of his work is for the University of Illinois, which has studied 3,000 turtles in the last decade.
The Forest Preserve District is collecting turtle data to help the local ornate box turtle population survive and expand, said Becky Blankenship, the Forest Preserve’s wildlife ecologist.
Once the turtles were found on the recent foray, they were measured and outfitted with a small high-frequency transmitter that will last two to four years. Blankenship said she will track the turtles three times a week until nesting season arrives, and then she will track the females nightly to see which habitats they are using and if the population is expanding.
Blankenship said having Rucker's dogs on the hunt helps immensely. The turtle dogs’ sense of smell is far superior to a human’s ability to find turtles with their sight, so it’s great to have “extra noses” for the work, she said. And the dogs can go into tall grass areas that humans would have a harder time navigating.
In the coming years, the data collected will show if Forest Preserve restoration efforts are working.
The Forest Preserve will continue to manage the site to make it hospitable for the turtles and other native species by planting native grasses and forbs that turtles like to use for cover. They like open areas with plants they can use for cover to avoid predators such as raccoons and skunks, which eat turtle eggs and the turtles themselves.
One of the reasons ornate box turtles are threatened in Illinois is because the grassland habitat they prefer has been converted into farmfields or developed, Rucker said.
So it's important to find where remnant clusters remain and foster more areas where the ornate box turtles can make a comeback, he said.
“People are realizing they are an important part of the food chain and they are older than almost all the other species around us,” he said. “They have a right to be here. They’re beautiful and they bring happiness and delight to people. So, we’re working hard to make sure they’re around for future generations.”
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