Buckeye Beat: Saving Spotted Turtles from Extinction

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- [Stephanie] Standing waist deep in a marsh in the Geauga Park District, park's biologist Paul Pira holds up what looks like an old TV antenna.

- Right, I mean, it's like finding a needle in a haystack.

- [Stephanie] He's tracking a spotted turtle, a reptile native to northeast Ohio in the Great Lakes region. Pira's using VHF, or Very High Frequency telemetry, to track an adult turtle previously outfitted with a microchip.

- You know, it could take me 15 minutes, should take me two hours out here.

- [Stephanie] The spotted turtle population has declined in recent years. Estimates indicate less than 10 inhabit the Geauga Park District, and the reptile is on the state's Threatened Species list. The decline prompted a unique partnership between the park district and Cleveland Metropark Zoo.

- This program all started back in 2011 when Paul kind of brought a bunch of the different organizations together, and just realized that spotted turtles as a whole were declining in this area. It was kind of a first step to try and really, kind of change the direction of that.

- [Stephanie] Mike Selig is the head of Veterinary Programs and Cleveland Metropark Zoo. Since 2012, park biologists endeavored to catch female spotted turtles in the spring time when they're more likely to contain eggs. That's where the zoo comes in. After performing a radiograph to determine the presence of eggs, the zoo induce the turtle to lay the eggs.

- So, this is our incubator that we've got our spotted turtle eggs in right now.

- [Stephanie] The incubator stays above 87 degrees, intentional on the zoo's part to ensure female hatchlings. Spotted are a species of reptile where gender is determined by incubation temperature. Above 87 for female turtles, and below 82 for males.

- [Mike] If you look, you can kind of see the blood vessels on the underside of the egg shell there, which indicates that it's a really healthy egg. And then the back part here is the actual baby turtle there. So, we've got four healthy eggs. They're about 3 1/2 weeks through their development, and hopefully in a couple more weeks, we'll get some hatchlings out of here.

- [Stephanie] The hatchlings will spend the next three years at the zoo, giving them time to mature in size before biologists escort them to their permanent home in the wild. The program aims to provide a safe environment as the turtles develop protecting them while they're at their most vulnerable.

- This little special wetland is kind of what biologists call a vernal pool.

- [Stephanie] On this humid summer morning, Pira and Selig carry a plastic tub containing a special new resident. After spending the first three years of her life at the zoo, this female will soon take her first steps in the wild.

- She hatched out about three years ago as part of this head starting program, and then we raised her up over the last three years to really try and make her at a size that she's gonna be a little bit more predator proof. One of the big problems that we run into is that predators, like raccoons predominantly, can eat these guys. So, if we raise them up, they're at a size that they are a little bit harder to just put right into their mouths. They have a little bit higher chance to actually be able to survive.

- [Stephanie] Aside from predators, other man-made threats continue to contribute to the population's decline.

- [Paul] They need high-quality wetlands, they need forested areas. Number one is destruction of it for, you know, development of big box stores, and all those kind of things. Number two is collection, over collection, and the illegal pet trade. I do wanna kind of stress that it's, not really the right thing is to take wild animals out of the park setting and take them home. Especially little guys like this that are endangered or threatened in Ohio.

- [Stephanie] Pira also points to roadway mortality, as a major concern for turtle populations.

- You see one, you can stop, if you're careful about it, and move the turtle off the road--

- Yeah.

- On to the side of kind of where it's headed.

- [Stephanie] Turtles released in the Geauga Park District spend a few weeks acclimating to their environment in a partially submerged cage. Biologists refer to it as a soft release. And before they're fully released to run the wetlands, turtles are outfitted with a new accessory, vital to tracking their progress in the wild.

- [Paul] Every animal that we have here and has been part of this program is microchipped, or pet tagged. Each turtle has its own unique identification number, and we can read it with a pet tag reader.

- [Stephanie] The day marks a momentous occasion for those involved in the program. This turtle is the third to be released through the partnership. But while there's celebration, there's also overwhelming concern about the population, and the need to do more.

- Really what it comes down to is numbers. To get to that sustainable level, we need to increase the number that we're putting out. We're kind of talking about a number of different ideas, because currently what we're doing, although it's definitely helping, I don't think it's the full solution. I think it's gonna be something that requires a number of different paths.

- Does it really matter if these animals go away? I get that question a lot. I want my children to be able to come out to this park and see a spotted turtle. I mean, who are we to say that one species is more important than another here on Earth? You know, it really boils down to that. I would like their grandchildren to come out and see a spotted turtle. That's kind of the satisfaction of doing this.

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