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Dozens of Endangered Turtles Released at Nachusa
Illinois Ag Connection - 07/06/2020

Blanding's turtles are known for their permanent smiles and bright yellow coloring. Now, 35 more indviduals of this charismatic threatened species are roaming the prairies and wetlands of Nachusa Grasslands.

Scientists from The Nature Conservancy, Forest Preserve Districts in DuPage and Lake Counties, Richardson Wildlife Foundation and Northern Illinois University joined forces to release the year-old turtles at Nachusa and the Richardson Wildlife Foundation, which together encompass nearly 6,000-acres of restored prairie, woodlands and wetlands in Lee County.

With less than 20 Blanding's turtles remaining at both sites, one of the biggest threats to the species is nest predation by racoons and other wildlife. However, their survival rates increase as the turtles grow and reach adulthood. That's where this partnership can make a big difference.

"We are invested in protecting and expanding populations of the few turtles that remain," says Elizabeth Bach, Ecosystem Restoration Scientist for The Nature Conservancy at Nachusa Grasslands. "It's truly an extraordinary wildlife effort involving the collaboration of scientists from across the state. We're excited to be part of this species' critical and rewarding conservation journey."

Eggs were collected one year ago at both sites, a difficult, delicate and often days-long process requiring a deep dedication from the scientists involved. The eggs were then incubated by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Once hatched, the hatchlings were transferred to the Lake County Forest Preserve District, where experts have raised the baby turtles ever since, a process called headstarting.

In the wild, Blanding's hatchlings hibernate during the winter months, but at the facility in Lake County, they stay awake to eat, potentially growing to the size of a three to four-year-old turtle in a year's time. Turtles are released back into the wild when they grow large enough to better protect themselves from predators.

A team from the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Illinois University placed custom-built transmitters on a portion of the Blanding's turtles ahead of the release at each site to track survival rates.

"The headstart program has been crucial to helping stabilize and grow the Blanding's turtle population in Lake County," says Gary Glowacki, Wildlife Ecologist at the Lake County Forest Preserve District. "We're thrilled to support this effort at Nachusa Grasslands and the Richardson Wildlife Foundation."

The species is one of seven endangered turtles native to Illinois. The Blanding's turtle release will supplement the small and vulnerable population at both sites, and is ultimately a step to restore the entire ecosystem. Illinois residents can get involved in the initiative by learning about a main cause of habitat loss--human development.

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