Giving them ‘a fighting chance’

Forest Preserve joins effort to save Blanding’s turtles

|  Story by Cindy Cain  |

The Forest Preserve District is diving into a regional effort to help save the state-endangered Blanding’s turtle from extinction.

Forty-nine baby Blanding’s turtles will spend their winter sunning themselves under heat lamps and swimming to and fro in specialized water basins at a Forest Preserve location. Next summer, the turtles will be released as 1-year-olds back into the wild as part of a program to reverse the species’ decline in Illinois. Once those turtles are released, the Forest Preserve District will get another batch to raise for a year.

“This helps prevent some of those early losses,” said Chris Gutmann, a Forest Preserve facility supervisor, who is overseeing the Will County program.

“We’re giving them a fighting chance.”

Blanding’s babies

The hatchlings were delivered recently after the Forest Preserve was accepted into the Blanding’s Turtle Recovery Program spearheaded by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and overseen by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Since 1996, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has released around 3,000 turtles into the wild.

 

“I think it’s great to be included in the program,” Gutmann said. “It’s a species that desperately needs help and we have the ability and the resources to help them.”

The recovery program, also underway at Illinois zoos, universities and other northern Illinois forest preserve districts, is designed to increase the odds that the turtles will survive to adulthood. A large percentage of the turtles perish as eggs or as newborns, and many more don’t survive to age 1.

“The smaller they are, the more predators can eat them,” said Dan Thompson, an ecologist for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Each hatchling now being raised by the Forest Preserve District of Will County will be closely monitored.

“We weigh and measure the hatchlings and each one has an ID number,” Gutmann said. “We know where they came from and where they were born.”

It’s turtle time at the Island

In addition to the hatchling program, an educational component also has been established at the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville.

Earlier this year, a 4,000-pound display tank containing 300 gallons of water was installed at the museum. Currently, the tank is housing an adult male Blanding’s turtle. The tank includes an air filtration system, an ultraviolet basking lamp and vegetation.

“It’s not just a rock and a bunch of water,” Gutmann said. “He can duck down and hide among the plants. He’s already explored every nook and cranny.”

Next year, the male will be sent to the breeding program, and he most likely will be replaced with turtles that are too young to breed or turtles with genetic anomalies that shouldn’t breed. The Forest Preserve will use the tank display to educate members of the public about the turtle’s plight, Gutmann explained.

The education program also could be used to get people to volunteer for habitat restoration workdays that will help the turtles.

“Everyone has different ways they can contribute,” Gutmann said.

 

Recovery effort shows progress

While the viability of Blanding’s turtles remains precarious, the recovery program does seem to be working, Thompson said. A turtle survey that used 111 traps in 2012 counted 35 Blanding’s turtles. By last year, fewer traps that were placed in preserves for fewer days netted 80 turtles, Thompson reported. And while this year’s report isn’t finalized, Thompson said preliminary survey results show more than 100 turtles were counted.

“Those are positive signs,” Thompson said.

Other turtle species seem to be holding their own, but Blanding’s turtles are in trouble because they need a larger habitat to survive, Thompson explained. Also, they don’t lay eggs as often as painted turtles, and they lay fewer eggs than snapping turtles, which may be why those turtle species are still relatively abundant.

While the recovery program is a positive step, the situation is still challenging, Thompson added. Habitat continues to decline due to development in northern Illinois, poachers are still illegally trapping the species to supply Asian markets or for use as pets, cars hit turtles that are crossing roads, and predators will continue to feast on eggs and newborn turtles that aren’t protected by the program.

Thompson said he welcomes the Forest Preserve District of Will County into the program because having more agencies involved in hatchling protection will increase the species’ numbers and create better genetic diversity. Helping Blanding’s turtles survive is a way to help the environment as a whole, he added.

“What we’re doing is holding things together for the future for a lot of other species,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

Blanding’s turtle facts

  • Blanding’s turtles are medium size with dark, helmet-shaped shells and bright yellow chins and throats. They like to hang out in marshes, meadows, wetlands and lakes.

  • The turtle was first described by American naturalist William Blanding, who found a specimen in the Fox River in Kendall County in 1830.

  • This species can be differentiated from others because the bottom part of its shell, known as the plastron, is hinged.

  • Blanding’s turtles are mostly carnivorous and they eat snails, insects, tadpoles, frogs and crayfish.

  • Females become sexually mature around age 13-16 and males around age 12. Courtship and mating take place from April through June and eggs hatch in August or September.

  • Blanding’s turtles can live to be more than 70 years old.

  • Illinois law prohibits the taking, possession, transportation, sale or disposal of any endangered species – including Blanding’s turtles – without a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credits: Chad Merda