IDNR Recovering Alligator Snapping Turtles

Chris Young
IDNR Recovering Alligator Snapping Turtles
UNION COUNTY, IL � The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) took the first steps in recovering the state-endangered alligator snapping turtle to its natural range in southern Illinois last week by releasing 97 turtles of various ages over three days.  The alligator snapping turtle � the largest freshwater turtle in North America � has been rarely seen in Illinois for decades due to channelization, levying, and draining of floodplain wetlands.

Last week�s release of turtles in muddy creeks in southern Illinois was part of a multi-state effort involving Illinois, Oklahoma, and Louisiana to recover or augment declining populations of the alligator snapping turtle. 

Funding for the recovery project is from a multi-state competitive State Wildlife Grant awarded to the three states by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The grant will cover the costs of long term monitoring and tracking of the released turtles, which have been equipped with radio transmitters.  The turtles released in Illinois were produced by the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Oklahoma, and they were paid for by donations to the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund, as well as a grant awarded by State Farm Insurance Companies to Pontiac Township High School science teacher Paul Ritter as part of the school�s Operation Endangered Species classroom initiative.

As part of last week�s release of alligator snapping turtles in Union County, Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) staff recorded data about each turtle and affixed transmitters and iButton dataloggers to the turtles.  The INHS staff was assisted with the turtle releases by staff from the IDNR Division of Natural Heritage, the Peoria Zoo, and Southern Illinois University Carbondale zoology students, along with students and staff from Pontiac Township High School and Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago.

"Recovering endangered species in Illinois, like the alligator snapping turtle, are important in that they increase biodiversity to areas where the species historically occurred, and they increase the likelihood that the species will continue to thrive in the Mississippi River basin,� said Scott Ballard, IDNR herpetologist and project leader.  �This effort could not have occurred without all the partners assisting in this effort.�

A large number of organizations are partnering with the IDNR to provide support for the multi-state recovery project: 

� The INHS has been contracted to conduct the telemetry studies monitoring the released turtles in Illinois, and the INHS is providing all the transmitters and iButton dataloggers for the three cooperating states. 
� The Peoria Zoo has been holding older alligator snapping turtles for the past several years for supplemental releases by the IDNR. 
� The St. Louis Zoo has been breeding alligator snapping turtles from their captive colony to provide hatchlings that will be raised by various schools in Illinois as part of the Pontiac High School Operation Endangered Species effort until those turtles are large enough to release. 
� Other partners include the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine, Missouri State University, Tulsa Zoo, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, University of Louisiana at Monroe, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. 
� The Missouri Department of Conservation and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission facilitated permits to transport the turtles from the Tishomingo hatchery through their respective states.

Ethan Kessler and colleagues from the Illinois Natural History Survey prepare alligator snapping turtles for release in southern Illinois, July 2014
Peoria Zoo staff members Dawn Petefish (L) and Katie Carlson examine alligator snapping turtles being prepared for release in southern Illinois, July 2014
Alligator snapping turtle prepared for release in southern Illinois with a monitoring radio transmitter and data logging device applied, July 2014
Alligator snapping turtles are released into an Union County, IL creek by (L to R) Ethan Kessler (Illinois Natural History Survey), Dawn Petefish (Peoria Zoo), Paul Wenzel (Peoria Zoo), Katie Carlson (Peoria Zoo), and Brian Jones (SIU-Carbondale alumni), July 2014

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