Saving the Blanding’s Turtle

Post by Allison Frederick

It was [dare we say] a perfect June day. Mostly sunny. Air temperature hovering around 75 degrees with a gentle breeze blowing off Lake Michigan, a mere 600 meters from where we stood. Sandhill cranes were bugling nearby in the marsh. Yellow warblers sang from the reeds, as we approached with 99 juvenile Blanding’s turtles. The young turtles were still quite small at 8 centimeters long and a mere 80 grams, but ready nonetheless for release into their natural habitat.

The Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) is a semi-aquatic turtle and is dependent upon both wetland and open canopy upland habitat for survival. Females will travel great distances to lay eggs in dry, well-drained soils. The species occurs from southeastern Ontario, adjacent Quebec, and southern Nova Scotia, south into New England and west through the Great Lakes to Nebraska, Iowa and extreme northeastern Missouri.

The Blanding’s turtle is a long-lived, semi-aquatic turtle in decline throughout much of its range. The species was listed as threatened in Illinois in 1999 and as endangered by the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board in 2009. Once likely common throughout Lake County, Blanding’s turtles have been documented from 17 localities since 1907. Of these, three populations are likely small and nonviable, 10 consist of only isolated observations or are relatively unknown, and one population has likely been extirpated due to habitat loss. Only one of the 17 known localities currently contains both the number of animals and habitat needed support a population of viable, free-ranging population of Blanding’s turtles—the Chiwaukee Illinois Beach Lake Plain (Lake Plain). And that is exactly where we were standing on a gorgeous summer day.

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The Lake County Forest Preserve District and partners have been monitoring the Blanding’s turtle population within the Lake Plain since 2004. This large coastal area represents one of the largest and most well studied populations of Blanding’s turtles in the region. However, modeling has indicated that the population is in decline due to low juvenile recruitment combined with unsustainable levels of adult mortality. In an effort to address the decline and recover the species, our agency instituted the Blanding’s Turtle Recovery Program in 2010.

To help the population replenish itself naturally, our wildlife biologists track turtles to determine their range and locations. We are working with partners, such as the Illinois and Wisconsin departments of Natural Resources and Illinois Natural History Survey, to protect habitats.

SPBL-20160602-046But it was our “head-starting” program that brought us to the Lake Plain earlier this month. We are working to increase juvenile survival through head-starting, where eggs are collected, incubated and hatchlings are held in captivity beyond the point of extreme predation by other animals, such as raccoons and skunks.

It’s pretty labor-intensive, but well worth the effort. Blanding’s turtles are part of the natural history of the Chicago region and are a good “umbrella” species, meaning it is symbolic of threats faced by other species.

Since 2004, 855 individual turtles have been tracked, marked and documented in two sites within the larger coastal area, including 538 turtles that were released as part of a head-starting program. The population is growing, and we’re seeing more juvenile turtles than in the past.

Our wildlife biologist, Gary Glowacki, is keen to add, “We can raise a bunch of cute baby turtles, but ultimately we want to take a hands-off approach.” Meaning, we’re eager to see the day when our wildlife monitoring data show far more wild-born turtles than those that we provided with a head-start.

IMG_20140929_110741687-CKYou can support the Lake County Forest Preserves’ and The Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves‘ efforts to protect this Blanding’s turtle population. Join our new Adopt-a-Turtle program. Any donation will help a baby Blanding’s turtle thrive. Or, you can become a Turtle Champion with a gift of $120.

Help us reach our goal of 100 Turtle Champions, or $12,000, by September 1, 2016.

As a Turtle Champion you can:
  • Name your turtle.
  • Join our wildlife biologists for a behind-the-scenes tour of the turtle facility.
  • Receive a picture of your turtle’s plastron (their unique underside).
  • Receive updates when your turtle is located during population monitoring.

Learn more at our Lake County Fair booth, July 27-31, where we will be highlighting our efforts to save the Blanding’s turtle. Children and adults can step into the shoes (actually, boots) of a wildlife biologist out in the field, protecting the species. Try on gear, test tracking equipment, and see a live Blanding’s turtle up close. We’ll also be on the Blue Ribbon Stage in the Expo Hall at 4 PM on Friday, July 29 for an informative presentation about our Blanding’s Turtle Recovery Program. Join us! 

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3 thoughts on “Saving the Blanding’s Turtle

  1. Interesting article. Predators were listed as skunks and raccoons. I can see why the Blandings face survival issues. Is habitat loss another factor or are there enough areas for nesting to support a healthy population?

    • Thanks for reading, David. Indeed, human-subsidized predators are a primary threat to this population. Our data found only 7.7% of turtle’s nests hatched successfully without the aid of protection from predators. But this is not the only threat to this species. They are endangered due also to high road mortality, illegal poaching, fragmented populations, and habitat loss. Both wetland and upland habitats are important for their lifecycle. Females must now cross numerous roads to reach their drier, upland nesting sites.

  2. Pingback: Turtle Champions | Lake County Nature

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