Why Lake County has delayed its annual release of Blanding's turtles into the wild

  • Wildlife biologist Gary Glowacki found this adult Blanding's turtle with a radio transmitter.

    Wildlife biologist Gary Glowacki found this adult Blanding's turtle with a radio transmitter. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves, 2014

  • Head-started Blanding's turtles readied for release into the wild by the Lake County Forest Preserve. The discovery of a fungus has delayed this year's release and put the head-starting program on temporary hold.

      Head-started Blanding's turtles readied for release into the wild by the Lake County Forest Preserve. The discovery of a fungus has delayed this year's release and put the head-starting program on temporary hold. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer, 2019

 
 
Posted5/23/2022 5:30 AM

About this time every spring since 2010, wildlife ecologist Gary Glowacki has readied batches of young Blanding's turtles for release into the wild as part of a long-term effort to boost the endangered reptiles' numbers.

The release is timed in recognition of World Turtle Day, held annually on May 23, to teach people how to protect the populations and habitats of turtles and tortoises.

 

But out of an abundance of caution, the 2022 release into a large, marshy area in northeastern Lake County is being delayed several weeks.

The brakes were pumped after routine health assessments conducted as part of the Lake County Forest Preserve District's turtle recovery program showed some Blanding's had contracted a fungus associated with turtle shell disease.

"We detected it very early, Glowacki said. "We're at a stage we can learn a lot from it and further improve our conservation efforts."

The discovery of the fungus has affected other suburban Blanding's programs as well, though not to the same degree.

The DuPage Forest Preserve District is releasing yearling turtles this spring rather than in August or September, after they test negative for the fungus three times, said district ecologist Dan Thompson.

Thompson usually collects pregnant females in the spring and brings them in until they lay their eggs. This year, he'll leave them in the field and only collect eggs. Hatchlings will be released instead of given a year to grow in captivity, Thompson said.

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Since 2010, the Lake County Forest Preserve District has been releasing Blanding's turtle hatchlings to increase their population. But that's on hold this year as scientists study the possible presence of a fungus associated with turtle shell disease.
  Since 2010, the Lake County Forest Preserve District has been releasing Blanding's turtle hatchlings to increase their population. But that's on hold this year as scientists study the possible presence of a fungus associated with turtle shell disease. - Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer, 2019

Once common but now endangered, Blanding's turtles' longevity and sensitivity to threats make them the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the health of ecosystems. Known for their bright yellow chin and throats that make it appear as if they are smiling, the presence of Blanding's turtles is important as an indicator of the health of wildlife in general, Glowacki said.

He's been working with Matt Allender, director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Lab at Brookfield Zoo, to develop release protocols to keep the contagious disease from spreading.

Lake County has one of the largest Blanding's populations in the Midwest and among the most developed programs for turtle conservation.

"We're at a really unique point in our history regarding the Blanding's population," Allender recently told forest preserve commissioners.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We have a chance to act and do no harm," he added.

Experts hope to nip the fungus before it becomes a problem. Very few samples collected during the health assessments have tested positive and it seems to be at a very low prevalence in the wild, Glowacki said.

But for now, head starting -- the practice of growing hatchlings in captivity until they are large enough to have a better chance of survival -- is temporarily on hold.

"The big thing is we're not going to collect any eggs this year," Glowacki added.

Strict biosecurity protocols have been put in place at the wildlife conservation facility where head-started turtles are growing. About 350 Blanding's turtles that have reached sufficient size will be released, but only after two rounds of negative tests.

The timing is fluid, as the district awaits delivery of transmitters used to track and monitor released turtles.

The forest preserve district's popular Adopt-A-Turtle program, which has raised more than $136,000 since 2016, also has been tweaked.

Donations are still vital to monitor the turtle population, says Rebekah Snyder, director of community engagement and partnerships. But naming rights for "Turtle Champions" who donate are $120 are on hold because turtles won't be hatched this year.

On a related note, pet turtles should be kept at home and not dumped in local waterways, Glowacki said.

"You never know what kind of disease you're releasing into the wild," he added.

Glowacki also cautioned drivers to be alert. Being hit by a vehicle is the biggest cause of death for adult turtles, and Blanding's are more susceptible than most because they travel great distances to find mates, food and nesting grounds.

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