KELLOGG — Blanding’s turtles are disappearing from one of their most important natural habitats in North America that happens to be in Southeast Minnesota.
Conservationists are hoping 146 acres of restored prairie can help keep Blanding's turtles off the road where they have a good chance of becoming road kill.
The prairie dunes at the Kellogg-Weaver Dunes Scientific and Natural Area and the McCarthy Lake State Wildlife Management Area, nestled between Mississippi River bluffs, are home to one of the largest native populations of the threatened Blanding’s turtles.
People who have been studying the turtles there since the 1970s say they estimate the population has dropped by half in the last decade.
“That’s a conservative estimate,” said Justin Congdon, a researcher who has been observing the turtles in the Upper Midwest since the 1970s. “It’s a steep drop whatever the actual number is.”
Poaching and cars are likely the key culprits in the decline, Congdon and other naturalists say.
Wabasha County Highway 84 cuts between both the natural areas.
Blanding’s turtles spend most of their lives in and around the water. However, in June, female turtles make their way from the water to nest in the sandy soil of the prairie. The hatchlings make their way back across the highway when they emerge from their nests in late August and September.
“It’s a double whammy,” Congdon said.
That double whammy requires a two-pronged approach. One key is to protect the turtles on the highway. The other is to provide nesting habitat that keeps some of them off the road.
“The turtles are at their most vulnerable on the road,” said David Ruff, the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota's Southeast Minnesota coordinator. “They’re out in the open, they’re easy to spot by predators or poachers.”
Seeds of change
The turtles will soon have 146 acres of restored prairie as an option for nesting thanks to The Nature Conservancy and funds from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. The land, which had been privately owned, was mostly pasture land with 57 acres of it being used to grow corn. It sits southeast of McCarthy Lake, west of Highway 84. Turtles emerging from the lake theoretically won't have to cross the highway to find a suitable nesting spot.
“We’re expanding what used to be entirely their area,” Ruff said. “We’re just giving it back to them.”
Seeding the section will take hundreds of pounds of seeds. Contractors and Nature Conservancy staff and interns have been gathering seeds from nearby prairie preserves and restored land to seed the newly acquired land.
Most of the plants in the sandy prairie have now gone to seed. Some are near the ground. Others are atop grasses taller than the people gathering the seeds. Some are small and soft. Others are surrounded by thick burs that stick to clothing. All are native to the area.
Pickers wear bungee cord belts strung through handles of topless milk jugs used to collect and sort the seeds in the field.
“I found some prairie clover,” said Autumn Jensen, the Nature Conservancy’s Southeast Minnesota site steward. Jensen was gathering seeds Tuesday in a restored prairie on the southern part of the Kellogg-Weaver Dunes.
The plant is fun to gather seeds, she said.
“They’re nice and soft,” she said. “When they’re ripe, they just slide off.”
“They’re very cathartic,” said Wes Braker, a contractor who is helping coordinate seed collection in the neighboring prairies.
The dry prairie is relatively easy to maneuver through, though Jensen warns others of poison ivy.
"Especially if you're crouching," she said.
Jensen found the remnants of a Blanding's turtle nest. The nest was likely dug up by a predator, she said, noting the amount of broken egg shells in the area. Most of the egg shells typically remain underground when hatchlings emerge on their own.
Braker and Jensen have been collecting seeds in the area since May as different prairie plants have gone to seed. He and Nature Conservancy staff have collected seeds from more than 140 varieties of grasses, forbs and hedges so far.
“These two have been seed-picking machines,” Jensen said of Minnesota Student Conservation Association interns Kayla Sharboneau and Kiara Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick worked for the Student Conservation Association collecting seeds in the glacial lakes area of Minnesota last year. She said it was a new learning experience to collect seeds in a rare sand prairie.
Sharboneau said she came into the job without much experience or knowledge of prairie plants.
“Now I know, what, 150 varieties,” she said.
Later, they sort the seeds, remove them from husks and fruits, and store them in bags suspended from a shed ceiling to keep them out of reach of mice.
When and how the seeds will be planted depends on weather this winter, Ruff said.
Crops to habitat
The newly acquired land is in good shape for the restoration efforts, he added. The soil is sandy, which is something that can’t be replicated without tremendous costs.
The corn that was grown there has helped keep invasive species from gaining traction there.
“The nice thing about restoring agricultural fields is that you’re starting with a clean slate,” Ruff said.
Aside from a few invasive trees, the pasture land has a good variety of prairie plants, Jensen said.
The corn field has yielded its last crop. Stubble and a few shorn stalks stand in a field strewn with debris from a recent harvest.
“It must have been harvested over the weekend,” Jensen said, surveying the field at the bottom of a slope. “I can't wait to see what this is going to look like in a couple years.”
The restoration will help other native species in the area, conservationists said. The endangered rusty patched bumble bee has been spotted in the area, said Jensen.
Tough road for turtles
The key to stabilizing the turtle population is to curb the road fatalities by promoting more driver awareness and to deter poachers, Congdon said.
“The road (surface) is dark, their carapace (back shell) is dark and unless you’re looking for them, you’re going to run over them,” Congdon said.
Pretty much any carnivore from coyotes to eagles looks for exposed hatchlings.
“They’re like little hors d'oeuvres,” he said, adding poaching makes the challenges even worse.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wants to curb poaching by having more people on the ground when the turtles are nesting or emerging. DNR officials have other plans to curb illegal taking but haven’t specified what measure they’ll take.