Endangered turtles at Highway 100 project get help from lab, bedroom

Five turtles hatched,raised in Independence laboratory released into Swan Pond

Grass can be seeing growing in Swan Pond, north of the Rock Island Botanical Preserve in Cedar Rapids. The pond is a habitat for the threatened Blandings turtle, as well as snappers and painted turtles. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Grass can be seeing growing in Swan Pond, north of the Rock Island Botanical Preserve in Cedar Rapids. The pond is a habitat for the threatened Blandings turtle, as well as snappers and painted turtles. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Biologist Terry VanDeWalle decided a year ago that someone could do more than object to the $200 million Highway 100 extension project to help the federally protected Blanding’s turtle population next to the coming four-lane road.

There also was more to do than he, as a consulting biologist for the Iowa Department of Transportation, currently was doing to track the eight remaining Blanding’s turtles at the site and to help build a new pond for them and a new wildlife culvert under the roadway.

That extra effort culminated on Tuesday morning, when VanDeWalle, his colleagues at Stantec Consulting in Independence, his two daughters and Iowa Department of Transportation environmentalists released five young Blanding’s turtles into Swan Pond next to the Highway 100 alignment — endangered turtles that VanDeWalle hatched and raised in his laboratory in Independence since last August.

Two of the five spent actually most of their time in 15-year-old Sarah VanDeWalle’s bedroom, where she named them Ariel and Merv. And on Tuesday, she sounded like a scientist’s daughter when she took her turn and released the two into the mucky water of Swan Pond.

“I’m a little sad because I raised them, and they were in my room,” said Sarah, a junior-to-be at Independence High School who wants to be a veterinarian. “But I knew I was going to release them, so it’s not like heartbreakingly sad.”

Laying eggs

Terry VanDeWalle first began working on the Highway 100 project with the DOT in 2002, trapping Blanding’s turtles, placing transmitters on each of them and tracking their travels in and around the Rock Island Botanical Preserve near the alignment of the highway project.

Opponents of the highway project delayed the project for some years, fighting to block it on environmental grounds, including the harm it would bring to the Blanding’s turtles.

In 2012, the Highway 100 project moved ahead and, by 2013, VanDeWalle realized that the population of eight Blanding’s turtles didn’t need a highway to do them in. All the development around the site actually was doing the job without the highway.

The eight Blanding’s turtles consisted of seven females and one male, and it wasn’t clear if the male had reached the age of 12 to 14 so he could try his best to repopulate the community.

VanDeWalle captured the seven females, took them to the lab, found some had eggs and induced them to lay the eggs. There were 33 of them, but only seven were fertilized.

Of those eggs, most were kept under 80 degrees, which produces males and, by late summer, five turtles hatched. Four are thought to be males, one female.

In fall, turtles head into hibernation for the winter, but the five hatchlings in VanDeWalle’s care were kept from hibernating and were fed through the winter. As a result, they had the growth of two-year-olds when they were eased into Swan Lake on Tuesday.

“We accomplished everything we set out to do with these,” VanDeWalle said. “Of course, we wish we would have more, that the fertility would have been greater.

“But all five survived. And this is the payoff, putting them back where they belong.”

‘Head-starting’ turtles

VanDeWalle said turtles that begin in a lab do not have greater difficulty in nature than those that start there. Mother turtles, he said, abandon their hatchlings in nature, and genetics and instinct take over from there, he said.

“Nobody is teaching them to be Blanding’s turtles or what to eat or what to avoid,” he said.

He said that the strong likelihood is that none of the five hatchlings raised in the lab would have survived in the wild because there were so few of them, and because they often are eaten by raccoons, skunks, possums and snakes.

In fact, he said “head-starting” turtle populations in the laboratory — and particularly so with Blanding’s turtles — is not uncommon in other states because the hatchling mortality rate is so high.

“We could be accused of playing God here, I guess,” VanDeWalle said. “But this population is in trouble and has been in trouble over the last 10 years. So we’re doing what we can to help.”

VanDeWalle’s work with the five turtles has been supported with a $2,500 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. This is even as he continues to work on contract with the DOT to keep track of the turtle population to see how it uses a new turtle pond and new highway underpass, both of which are part of the DOT highway project.

“We didn’t do all of this to watch this (Blanding’s) population die,” Mary Kay Solberg, DOT senior environmental specialist, said on Tuesday. “So we’re interested to make sure it endures and we support any effort that we can to make sure we have a nice, stable population.”

Blanding’s turtles can live to age 90, and males aren’t ready to breed until they reach the age of 12 or older. So the release of five young turtles — four of which are likely to be males — isn’t going to make for any kind of instant repopulation.

VanDeWalle said he intends to start more Blanding’s turtles in the lab this year. He also is planning to conduct DNA testing to see if just one male is responsible for fertilizing eggs near the Highway 100 alignment.

“Ultimately, who knows long-term what’s going to happen over the next 40, 50, 60 years?” he said. “Have we helped them? I would have to think we did.

“We’ve taken a population of eight and (added five). And we’ve given these five the best opportunity we can of survival.”

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