CHICAGO — Twenty years of collaborative efforts between several wildlife organizations are starting to pay off for an endangered turtle hunted by poachers, run over by cars and eaten by a multitude of predators.
The Blanding's Turtles Restoration Project began in 1996 when wildlife officials were able to radio collar two adult breeding females in DuPage County wetlands — one of the state's last hotbeds for the turtles. The turtles are native to Illinois and much of the Great Lakes region.
Now there are 20 to 25 adult females collared in the wild, and 140 of the rare turtles — two years old and younger — at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
"We are starting to see more turtles of every age group, which is the goal of the project," said Notebaert Director of Living Collections, Celeste Troon.
The project is a team effort between Notebaert, DuPage Forest District and Willowbrook Wildlife Center. Within days, officials will begin locating collared Blanding's turtles, and they can determine whether they're about to lay eggs. If that's the case, the turtles will be transported to Willowbrook Wildlife Center, where they lay the eggs in special pens. The turtles hatch at Willowbrook and are then brought to Notebaert when they're between four and seven days old — when they're no bigger than a quarter, Troon said.
The turtles stay at Notebaert for two years, and most of them can be viewed by the public in the museum. All turtles at the museum receive microchips. Females are radio collared the night before they're released into the wild.
If not for the group effort, it's likely the turtles would have disappeared from DuPage County. The eggs and hatchlings are easy prey for raccoons, coyotes, bullfrogs and other predators. Adult turtles are often hit by cars. Countless turtles are poached, many times in the middle of the night.
The turtles, which have been endangered in Illinois since 2009, likely number fewer than 5,000 in the state, Troon said. There are no viable populations within Chicago or Cook County, Troon said.
Blanding's turtles can live — and lay eggs — into their 70s, but they don't begin to reproduce until their mid to late teens.
Last year, Troon said, officials found the first wild hatchlings in the project site since 1998. Two years ago, she said, the first offspring were hatched from turtles that had originally been hatched at the museum.
"We're seeing positive results, but it's still a work in progress," Troon said.
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