John Rucker (left) and his three Boykin spaniels search for ornate box turtles in the Sugar River corridor as part of a survey to find how prevalent the state-threatened species of turtle is in Winnebago County forest preserves. Photo by Kevin Haas.
Conservationists can’t find ornate box turtles in Winnebago County
Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD — A search for a threatened turtle species in Winnebago County forest preserves confirmed what officials expected: They’re hard to find.
Conservationists spent two days last week searching the Sugar River corridor for ornate box turtles but found none.
The turtle has been found in Winnebago County preserves in the past and was the subject of a search this week because the sandy-soil prairies here make an ideal habitat for the rare reptile.
“We were hoping to see a better population because the habitat is right, but the population that’s there is a small, sparse population,” said Jennifer Hammer, a land conservation and restoration specialist with The Conservation Foundation, who coordinated the survey.
The small turtle, distinguished by bright yellow lines on a dark olive shell, can be difficult to find in the wild. It burrows into the sandy soil to hibernate during the winter. It also digs below ground in extreme heat. The state has recognized the species as threatened — the level below endangered — since 2009.
Specially trained dogs offered some help to conservationists from the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District and The Conservation Foundation in the search. The dogs, in this case three Boykin spaniels, came from Tennessee with owner John Rucker. Rucker owns Turtledogs, a company that helps researchers track down turtles. The chocolate-colored, wavy-haired dogs stay within earshot of Rucker, who occasionally calls them in or bellows out for them to “find me a turtle.” The dogs are trained to track the scent of a turtle, follow its path, pick it up with a “soft mouth” and drop it in Rucker’s hand. The turtles typically protect themselves during the ordeal by retracting into their shells.
The dogs didn’t find any turtles in Winnebago County during searches Tuesday and Wednesday, more proof that the turtles are few and far between.
“If there’s a breeding population, they won’t miss it,” Rucker said.
Hammer received a nearly $10,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, through its wildlife preservation fund, to survey ornate box turtles in Winnebago County and about 14 other counties.
The data she collects will be shared with the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board and may guide its decisions when the state’s list of threatened and endangered species is reviewed and revised, which happens at least once every five years. Hammer said their findings, so far, suggest upgrading the turtle to the Illinois endangered species list.
Ornate box turtles had historically occupied 44 counties in the state, but when the species was reviewed in 2009 it was found to occupy only about 21 counties, said Anne Mankowski, executive director of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. There are 484 endangered and threatened species in Illinois, which includes 332 plants and 152 animals.
Why it’s threatened
The decline of the species is primarily from habitat destruction. The turtle can protect itself from many predators by retracting into its shell, but that doesn’t protect it from cars. They’re often killed trying to cross roads, Hammer said.
The loss of habitat makes work by conservationists at the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District important for turtles, Hammer said. Annual controlled burns, which help curtail invasive species, can also help open up prairie so they’re more suitable for the turtle, she said.
Wild ornate turtles are also on the decline because they’re sought by poachers, who illegally remove them from preserves and sell them on the black market, Mankowski said. Hammer said researchers have to be careful not to reveal precise locations of turtles because doing so would attract poachers.
Ornate box turtles “don’t reach a breeding age until they’re 15 to 20 years. They’ll lay one clutch of eggs, anywhere from two to six eggs,” Hammer said. “So you can see, if you start taking individuals out of a population and they’re not running into each other as often for mating, then you get that decline and it takes so long for them to get to a reproducing age.”