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Good Girl! These Dogs Are Helping Save Habitats By Finding Rare Turtles

Jun 5, 2019
Originally published on June 6, 2019 1:06 pm

As human activities are increasingly threatening animal species, scientists say turtles are at a significant risk because of climate change. In Iowa, conservationists are taking an unconventional approach to finding and protecting turtles, with an unlikely helper.

A retired schoolteacher has trained his hunting dogs to find the reptiles for researchers. Counting the creatures will help conservationists manage the land better.

It's a cool spring morning on a 40-acre nature preserve owned by Bur Oak Land Trust in eastern Iowa. John Rucker is scouring a shady hillside with his four Boykin spaniels, looking for turtles.

"Find turtle, find turtle," Rucker calls to his dogs. Turning to a reporter, he says: "Did I tell you I'm the only person in the world that does this?"

In fact, there are a number of conservationists and their canine companions doing similar work (though Rucker may be one of the few who live out of tents and vans while working).

When he's not living off the grid in rural Montana, Rucker travels the country with his specially trained hunting dogs, helping scientists and conservationists find turtles.

The dogs working with Rucker are Rooster, Jenny Wren, Jaybird and Mink.

Rucker and his "super dogs," as he calls them, make their way through the undergrowth, checking in brush piles and under old logs. When the dogs find a turtle, they'll gently pick it up with their mouth and bring it back to Rucker.

"You will notice that as soon as they strike a scent trail their tails will start wagging furiously, and then their whole demeanor becomes extremely excitable," Rucker explains.

Citizen conservationist Judy Felder is one of the volunteers out hunting today.

"It's sort of like a religion for me," Felder says. "Nature is important and somebody has to defend it, protect it, preserve it."

Today the group is looking for ornate box turtles — they're about 4 to 5 inches across with yellow markings.

"It's just wonderful to hold one. They're gorgeous; they're absolutely gorgeous," Felder said. "The feel of their shell is ... I really hope we find one."

Ornate box turtles once roamed Iowa's native prairies along with herds of wild bison. The turtles' habitat was largely destroyed when European settlers plowed the state's grasslands.
Kate Payne / IPR

Ornate box turtles are a remnant species of the country's vast prairies, where they co-evolved with wild bison. When European settlers turned the grasslands into farms, the turtles lost nearly all of their habitat. Now they're considered threatened in Iowa.

"We try to manage our properties with the most vulnerable species in mind, and these turtles are the most vulnerable species," says Jason Taylor, a property stewardship specialist with the Bur Oak Land Trust.

Taylor hopes to restore this site to what it looked like pre-settlement — a sunny, open grassland dotted with oak trees and periodically burned by prairie fires. Knowing more about the turtle population will help him decide how to best manage the land to preserve their habitat.

"There are a number of things that we're going to do simply because we have known presence of these turtles. As opposed to on other properties, we'd be able to mow, we'd be able to burn during growing season, we'd be able to do all these additional things," Taylor says.

It almost makes you want to just weep to think of all that we have lost and what it would've been like 200 years ago. - John Rucker

But first the team has to find the turtles. At a sunnier stretch of prairie a few miles away, Rucker once again lets the dogs off-leash and they run through the prairie grasses, looking for turtles.

"Find turtle, find me a turtle," Rucker calls to the dogs.

It's a beautiful, clear day and the dogs are on a roll.

After rooting through a thicket of trees in the middle of the prairie, one of the dogs emerges with a turtle grasped squarely in its mouth.

"Hey we got a turtle! That dog's got one!" Rucker calls. "Good girl, Mink! Come on girlie."

Volunteers scoop the turtles up and check for ID markers. Cornell College biology professor Andy McCollum and his students Lizzy Ott and Lily Ullenius are here to track the turtles and hold on to some for further research. Over three days, the dogs find a total of 137 turtles.

While this may seem like a lot of effort for a relatively minor species, they're all intertwined. Rucker says species provide habitat and food for each other and slow the spread of pests and diseases.

It's all too easy to upset that balance.

Seeing ecosystems regain that biodiversity is breathtaking, Rucker says. He tells me about looking out on a stretch of prairie after a summer rainstorm.

"The smell of the tallgrass prairie was overpoweringly beautiful. To see the turtle dogs catching ornate box turtles within sight of a wild bison herd after a summer rainstorm was ..." Rucker trailed off. "It almost makes you want to just weep to think of all that we have lost and what it would've been like 200 years ago."

What's lost here in Iowa is the native prairie. With the help of Rucker and his turtle dogs, conservationists are trying to create a safe environment for this at-risk species.

Copyright 2019 Iowa Public Radio News. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio News.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Scientists say human activity and climate change have put many types of turtles at risk. In Iowa, conservationists have recruited some unlikely helpers in the effort to find and protect rare turtles. Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne has our story.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: It's a cool spring morning at a 40-acre nature preserve in eastern Iowa. John Rucker and his four Boykin spaniels are scouring the hillside for turtles.

JOHN RUCKER: This is Rooster. This is Jenny Wren. She's the one that gives me my litters. And that's Mink. No, that's Jaybird. And that's Mink.

PAYNE: Rucker and his dogs are helping researchers track down some rare turtles so they can decide how to best manage this land to protect their habitat. First, they have to find them.

RUCKER: Now, let's work these dogs in this little logjam here. Here (whistling) find turtle. Find turtle.

PAYNE: They're looking for ornate box turtles, which are about the size of a softball with bright yellow markings.

JUDY FELDER: They're absolutely gorgeous. And the feel of their shell is, you know - I really hope we find one.

PAYNE: That's Judy Felder, who calls herself a citizen scientist and is helping out today.

FELDER: It's sort of like a religion for me. Nature is important. And somebody has to defend it.

PAYNE: When the dogs sniff out a turtle, they'll gently pick it up with their mouths and bring it back to Rucker.

RUCKER: As soon as they strike the scent trail, the tails will start wagging furiously.

PAYNE: Ornate box turtles are a remnant of the prairie where they coexisted with bison. When European settlers turned the grasslands into farms, the turtles lost nearly all their habitat. And now here in Iowa, they're considered a threatened species. Jason Taylor oversees this preserve, which he wants to restore to how it looked before settlement. Knowing more about the turtle population will help him decide how to bring back naturally occurring fires.

JASON TAYLOR: We try to manage our properties with the most vulnerable species in mind. And these turtles are the most vulnerable species.

RUCKER: Jason, we're watching this dog here. She's acting interested in something. Find turtle. Find me a turtle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Have one right here.

RUCKER: Hey, we got a turtle. That dog's got one.

PAYNE: Volunteers scoop them up, look for ID tags and keep some for research at a local college. Over three days, the dogs find more than 130 turtles.

RUCKER: Good girl, Mink. Come on, girlie.

PAYNE: While this may seem like a lot of effort for a relatively minor species, they're all intertwined. Rucker says species provide habitat and food for each other and slow the spread of pests and diseases. It's all too easy to upset that balance.

RUCKER: It's like if you have a symphony orchestra, and the richness and the beauty and the depth of the sound comes from many different types of instruments - the woodwinds, the strings, the percussion. And the natural world is just like that. For every species that winks out, not only is it less beautiful, but it's all interdependent.

PAYNE: Rucker says it's breathtaking to see ecosystems regain biodiversity. And he waxes poetic about looking out on a prairie after a summer rain.

RUCKER: To see the turtle dogs catching ornate box turtles within sight of wild bison herds was - it almost makes you want to just weep to think of all that we have lost.

PAYNE: What's lost here in Iowa is the native prairie. With the help of Rucker and his turtle dogs, conservationists are trying to create a safe environment for this at-risk species. For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.