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A rare turtle finally gets a break

--- Walworth County is home to threatened and endangered species

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published July 30, 2007, 2:37 p.m.)


Late at night in a farmer's field the scientists quietly wait, and wait and wait. Hours go by and night after night they wait.

Finally there it is-a Blanding's turtle inches her way out of the creek, across the hayfield and into the corn.

There she builds a nest, lays three to 17 eggs, buries them and slowly leaves. She will not be back.

Now Gary Casper, a consultant scientist with University of Milwaukee Field Station, can move in with his team of researchers. They build a cage around the nest and mark the spot with a fluorescent flag on a stick.

They'll be back in 65 to 90 days to see if the nest was successful, then count, weigh and measure every one before releasing them on their instinctual way.

Why go to so much trouble for a turtle? Because they're very special turtles who haven't gotten a break in 100 years.

That's when most of Walworth County was converted to agriculture, followed by residential and commercial development and road networks.

"(The turtles) are part of the natural wildlife that used to be common in Walworth County's savannas and wetlands that were here before settlements," he said. "But the areas around the Mallard Ridge complex and the Turtle Creek corridor are still pretty decent habitat."

Blanding's turtles are timid and gentle, medium-sized and easy to identify by the yellow undersides of their necks and shells and green splotchy topsides once they reach 3-5 years of age.

Blanding's turtles, named for their discoverer, are listed as threatened and in need of help if they are to exist. That means people like Casper and his crews and landowners are taking great care to give them a break.

Dale Wheelock owns one cornfield that the turtles prefer in Darien Township. He's agreed to use no-till farming practices, plant and harvest around the turtle's calendar and allow crews to spend long hours on his land.

"He's been great letting us tramp through his fields," Casper said. "We've followed the turtles in his field for 10 years running and almost all of the nests are successful. I don't think they were in the years ago before he started using no-till."

Wheelock's easygoing personality is a stroke of much-needed luck for the turtles, as part of growing successful crops is keeping people and vehicles out of the fields.

"I think it's pretty neat they're here," Wheelock said. "They're not very big and kind of look like a World War I helmet."

The Mallard Ridge Landfill has also gone to great lengths to help the turtles out. They've constructed fences, taken care with streams and their banks, allowed full access to crews and done whatever else they've been asked to do.

"The landfill has been a good steward to the land for the turtles," Casper said.

In the last 10 years, crews have counted about 300 adults and 150 babies have been produced, Casper said.

"Their mortality rate is really high just after hatching," he adds. It takes a Blanding's turtle 15 to 20 years to reach adulthood.

Other endangered and threatened species have been squeezed into the same areas.

"We know massasauga snakes--a highly endangered little rattlesnake almost completely extinct in Wisconsin--are nearby and we know queen snakes are in the creek."

Now the turtles' biggest threat is traffic mortality, Casper says.

"They're getting killed, especially on Highway 11 and Townline Road. If you see a turtle on the road, stop and help them across."

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