National Wildlife Refuge System
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Boykin spaniel Jenny Wren sniffs out an ornate box turtle.
Boykin spaniel Jenny Wren sniffs out an ornate box turtle.
Credit: Mike Redmer, USFWS
John Rucker shows off his ace turtle-hunting team — Boykin spaniels trained to sniff out box turtles. The team recently found 97 ornate box turtles at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, where wildlife researchers hope to learn more about them.
John Rucker shows off his ace turtle-hunting team — Boykin spaniels trained to sniff out box turtles. The team recently found 97 ornate box turtles at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, where wildlife researchers hope to learn more about them.
Credit: USFWS

Turtle Dogs to the Rescue

Ornate box turtles can be surprisingly hard to spot. That's a problem for refuge biologists studying the increasingly scarce land creatures, listed last year as threatened in Illinois. Staff at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which covers parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, recently found an innovative solution. They hired so-called "turtle dogs," Boykin spaniels specially trained to find box turtles by scent instead of by sight.

In May, the dogs, deployed with Tennessee-based owner/trainer John Rucker, found 97 ornate box turtles in the refuge's sand prairies. "Without the dogs, we could not have found that many in an entire summer," said refuge manager Ed Britton, who anticipates a return engagement.

The dogs, who picked up the turtles soft-mouthed as taught, wore Vibram booties to protect their paws from prickly pear cactus. And they were given frequent water breaks to help them weather 90-plus degree heat.

Many of the newfound turtles will be recruited into the refuge's three-year-old radio-tracking study to learn more about turtle movements, habits and hibernation patterns. Refuge staff hope the data will help them time essential refuge management tasks, such as burning and mowing prairie to control invasive grasses and woody vegetation, to better protect the turtles.

Study data are already helping. Some turtles hibernate as long as seven months, researchers have learned. Last year an October cold snap sent them underground early, but a warm November brought them back out. "That's telling us we've got to be careful when we do fall burning," said Britton.

The study will also help researchers determine the long-term viability of very small, scattered turtle populations. "If we do need to move some turtles," said Britton, "we have the ideal place for them.  We have 4,000 acres of sand prairie on the Upper Mississippi Refuge. We're doing modeling to convince the [Illinois] Endangered Species Protection Board and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that this is a logical next step, that they would survive and we would have a viable population."

If the groups decide to expand the study beyond the refuge's seven sand prairies to private property, the dogs likely will be back. And researchers will have to mind their mouths again. Why? The spaniels like to sniff out other animals, too. To avoid throwing them off track, researchers working with the dog team were warned not to speak the word "bird."

For more information about Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, visit: http://midwest.fws.gov/UpperMississippiRiver/ or call 507-452-4232.

For more information about the turtle dogs, visit: http://www.bigskyboykins.com/html/turtle_dogs.html.

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