FRANKLIN GROVE — More than 70 threatened Blanding’s turtles will be released in two prairie preserves for the first time thanks to a new collaborative species protection program involving The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Illinois, Forest Preserve Districts in DuPage and Lake Counties, Richardson Wildlife Foundation and Northern Illinois University.
Scientists plan to release the year-old turtles, known for their apparent permanent “smile,” at Nachusa Grasslands and the Richardson Wildlife Foundation, which together encompass nearly 6,000-acres of restored prairie, woodlands and wetlands in Lee County.
A large threat to the species is predation—survival rates increase as the turtles grow and reach adulthood. It’s something many of them don’t live to see—currently, the turtles are a needle in a haystack on this land and others in the state, with less than 20 remaining on both sites. Studies show that most Blanding’s nests are raided by raccoons and other animals.
“We are invested in protecting and expanding populations of the few turtles that remain,” said 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 will place 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,” said 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 an existing small and vulnerable population of animals to their habitats and is, ultimately, a step to restore the whole ecosystem.
As the climate rapidly changes, this is also a demonstration of the importance of land protection and how a connected landscape can support a species as populations are forced to relocate and adjust to these profound changes. Illinois residents can get involved in the initiative by learning about a main cause of habitat loss – human development.
The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where nature and people thrive. Founded in 1951, and thanks to more than a million members and the dedicated efforts of our diverse staff including more than 400 scientists, The Nature Conservancy is one of the most effective and wide reaching environmental organizations in the world advancing conservation through land and water protection and restoration initiatives as well as addressing climate change. Its work spans more than 70 countries across six continents.
In Illinois, The Nature Conservancy has helped protect more than 86,000 acres across the state since its inception more than 60 years ago with a particular focus on conservation of the prairies, savannas, forests, wetlands and rivers that dot its landscape.
For more information, visit https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/illinois/.