GREEN SCENE: Turtledogs sniff the prairie

Turtledogs search the sand prairie for the elusive ornate box turtle. Submitted photo

The Turtledogs returned to the Lost Mound sand prairie to sniff out the elusive ornate box turtle. These specially trained Boykin spaniels are a professional turtle tracking service. They have worked on scientific research projects throughout the U.S., including a local project to restore an ornate box turtle population.

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge brought back the Turtledogs to help with a long-term research study on ornate box turtles in Savanna, Illinois. Ornates were listed as a threatened species in Illinois in 2009 due to their declining population status. Population decline was primarily attributed to the loss of sand prairies, an important habitat type used by these land turtles – they do not live in water as many turtle species do.

The turtle search area was focused at the Refuge’s Lost Mound Unit, formerly the Savanna Army Depot. Historically, the Depot supported a large population of ornates but decades of military activity resulted in the loss of habitat and reduction of the population to only a few individuals. The military mission ended in 2000 and the Refuge inherited about 10,000 acres at the Depot, which is now called Lost Mound.

In 2008, the Refuge began a research project to re-establish a viable population of ornates at Lost Mound. Early restoration efforts were hampered by predation of turtles and nests by coyotes and raccoons. A 19-acre Turtle Corral was constructed consisting of aluminum sheeting buried in the ground and a 5-foot-high weld wire fence to keep out predators.

The Turtledogs are Boykin spaniels, a breed that has historically been used in the Southeast as hunting dogs due to their keen sense of smell. The Boykin spaniel is the official state dog of South Carolina. The Turtledogs were initially trained as bird dogs but acquired the unique skill of turtle tracking, with experience on many projects.

Ornate box turtles are mostly solitary in nature, well camouflaged, and hard to find visually by researchers. The Turtledogs provide an efficient method for locating turtles by relying on scent trails of turtles, the drawback being that turtles must be active for the dogs to find them. The recent cool wet weather resulted in only six turtles being found. The dogs pick up the turtle in a specially trained soft-mouth grip.

The dogs' cross-training led to some minor distractions by upland birds but owner/trainer John Rucker would reinforce their goal of finding turtles by constantly reminding the dogs “Turtles, find turtles.” The team of researchers accompanying the dogs was warned not to say the B-I-R-D word because the dogs may respond and search for birds instead of turtles.

John is a nomadic traveler who spends most days with his eight dogs in search of turtles or birds. His next destination was Wisconsin to search for ornates at another research site. John is a retired high school English teacher who lives off the grid in the mountains of Montana. John’s love of the outdoors and his dogs was foremost. His knowledge and devotion to turtle conservation was inspiring. The Turtledogs' contribution in finding ornate box turtles has added significantly to the conservation and management of this imperiled species in Northwest Illinois.

Our local bald eagle trio and their trio of eaglets have provided many hours of binge watching eagle mania. The eaglets are growing like weeds, standing on their own, and starting to exercise their wings. This unusual wildlife adventure can be viewed at stewardsummr.org.

Ed Britton is a wildlife refuge manager on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and a volunteer at Bickelhaupt Arboretum in Clinton.