JOHNSON COUNTY — In a copse of trees in Johnson County, birdsong trilled over the sound of nearby cars on Monday. In this small patch of wilderness, hidden away behind houses and businesses, John Rucker surveyed the ground with a critical eye, then patted the heads of four short shaggy brown dogs waiting at his side.
“All right dogs, let’s get to work,” he called out softly. “Let’s find turtles. Find turtles!”
The dogs obediently jump up and start trotting along the property, sniffing and rooting among stumps and wood piles, hunting for the scent of elusive ornate box turtles.
Ornate box turtles, native to Iowa and other parts of the Great Plains, are categorized as threatened in Iowa, as their habitat has been steadily eroded in favor of agriculture and housing. Threatened species are those the state deems likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future, and are protected by law — it is illegal to kill or collect them.
So when Bur Oak Land Trust property stewardship specialist Jason Taylor found one of the turtles while working with a group of volunteers on this protected piece of land, he and others at the Land Trust got very excited.
“To have this creature occur here was a pretty outstanding discovery,” said Ken Lowder, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
The Iowa City-based nonprofit’s mission is to protect and conserve natural areas. They currently own and manage more than 400 acres, with nine Eastern Iowa properties open to the public.
Lowder said the property where the turtles were found would likely have been developed into housing if the former owners hadn’t donated it to the organization. Bur Oak Land Trust asked The Gazette keep the name and exact location of the Johnson County property private, because poaching is a concern for ornate box turtles, which are often sold as pets.
After finding the first turtle, and then just one other — a male and a female pair — Taylor called Rucker and asked if he and his dogs could come help search for more.
Rucker, 71, lives in Montana, but he and his specially trained Boykin spaniels spend a lot of time in the Midwest, particularly in Illinois, where he has partnered with the University of Illinois on ornate box turtle research projects. He estimates his dogs have found several thousand individual box turtles over their years of work, including around 500 just last year.
He discovered the dogs’ potential as turtle hunting dogs years ago, by accident, when they spontaneously started bringing him Eastern box turtles one day. After that he started training them — he starts when they are puppies, with fiberglass turtles smeared with bacon grease. The dogs “have very gentle mouths” he said, and when they find a turtle they carry it back to him very carefully, without hurting the smaller animal.
Once the dogs bring him a turtle, the researchers he works with can then document it — they take photos of it’s bottom shell, which is unique to each turtle, like a fingerprint, as well as measure and weigh it and mark it’s location. All of that helps promote understanding of the turtles and their disappearing habitat.
“They have a right to be here. It took millions of years for box turtles to come into existence. They’re beautiful. They make the web of life more beautiful, more resilient,” Rucker said. “They were here before we were.”
The dogs — named Rooster, Jenny Wren, Jaybird and Mink — are invaluable research partners, he added.
“These dogs are the best of the best,” he said. “These dogs have given us information that humans might never have come across.”
Though they didn’t find any additional turtles at the Bur Oak site Monday morning, it was a cool and cloudy day, not ideal weather for finding the coldblooded animals, who like to sun themselves in warm spots. Later in the day, the dogs found two turtles at another site known to have more of the animals, where on a warm day they would have found a far bigger number.
Taylor isn’t giving up hope the Bur Oak property could be a habitat for the turtles.
He pointed to a big oak tree, which towered over the smaller trees dotted around the wooded grounds. That oak has been here a long time and is meant to be part of this habitat.
“All these smaller trees grew up in the last 30 years. This is an artificial environment created because humans removed fire from the landscape,” he said. “There are 75 percent more trees than there should be on this landscape.”
The goal is to clear out the small trees and brush to return the currently shady, wooded site to an open savanna prairie, as it would have been in the past.
In the future, the organization could do prescribed burns here to help manage the landscape. Burns, which occurred naturally in pre-European settlement times, clear out unwanted growth and allow native prairie plants to thrive.
Knowing more about the turtle population here will help them plan those burns. If the area has a viable mating turtle population, that changes the times of year they will burn, to better protect the turtles. It also changes what herbicides they might use to help control unwanted plants.
“The goal for this property is to restore it to pre-settlement conditions. Before European settlers were in Iowa, this would have looked tremendously different,” Taylor said. “Restoring it means we’re going to have a better habitat for native species, including turtles.”
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