Blanding's turtle recovery program a slow success in Lake County
Like every year since 2010, Gary Glowacki, a wildlife ecologist with the Lake County Forest Preserve District, celebrated World Turtle Day by releasing a big batch of hatchlings into a marshy area and crossing his fingers for the survival of an endangered species.
On Thursday, with the assistance of college veterinary students and others, 91 baby Blanding's turtles were carried over squishy ground in big plastic tubs to the waters edge and gently introduced to what hopefully will be their home for a long time.
"They could be the canary in the coal mine," Glowacki said of the species, known for a bright yellow chin and throat that makes them appear to be smiling. "If we lose these guys, it's not a good sign for wildlife or people in general."
The freed turtles have been carefully tended since being born in 2017 and 2018. They range in size, though the minimum requirement for release is 30 grams, or a little over an ounce.
Many of the little reptiles had names, like Cannon Ball and Titan, bestowed by generous donors to the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves' Adopt-a-Turtle recovery program, which was established in 2016.
But Glowacki and the forest preserve district have been at it much longer. Beginning in 2004, the district and the Illinois Natural History Survey, equipped Blanding's turtles with radio transmitters as part of a larger study. Eventually, it was determined the species was in decline because not enough turtles were being produced to replace adults.
Blanding's turtles in 2009 were designated as endangered in Illinois due to habitat loss, increased pressure from predators and poaching, which is why the release locations, which vary every year, are kept secret.
In 2010, the forest preserve began collecting and incubating eggs and raising Blanding's turtles to eventually introduce them to their native habitat, a process known as headstarting.
Since then, 881 hatchlings have been released.
About 65% of the headstarters will survive. Glowacki estimated the Blanding's population has tripled to about 522 since the program began.
But of the 18 locations where Blanding's exist in Lake County, only one, a broad area that included Thursday's release site, is considered viable. The Blanding's population is the largest in Illinois and considered one of the best turtle habitats in the world, according to Glowacki.
That attracts scientists like Matt Allender, a wildlife veterinarian and director of the wildlife epidemiology lab at the University of Illinois.
While the population has increased, little is known about turtle health, Allender said. That's why on Thursday blood was drawn, mouths swabbed and other assessments of some adult turtles made.
"That's the new component we're bringing in," he said. "The things we are doing here are absolutely amazing."
The health assessments may give researchers clues as to where best to try and start new colonies.
Glowacki said he is pleased with progress so far, but the outcome won't be known for decades.
"The true story is 15 years from now. How many of these guys are surviving and reproducing on their own?" he said. "Success is a long-term proposition. We're starting to get there, but it's a long road."