VALENTINE, Neb. — The young turtle smiled, though he was, perhaps, having a rough day.
Maybe he thought he was being harassed by a strange two-legged giant, who raised a big finger to count the five or six growth rings on the turtle’s underbelly. The giant pointed to the turtle’s bright yellow throat and mouth, always curled upward in a permanent grin.
It was likely an experience the turtle wasn’t used to. So when the giant gently placed him on the ground, no one could blame the turtle for attempting a daring — and surprisingly speedy — escape.
This was a Blanding’s turtle, explained the giant, Dennis Ferraro, a conservation biologist and herpetologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And though this particular specimen didn’t seem to be enjoying himself at the moment, life in the Sand Hills is, for the species, pretty darn good.
This summer the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission announced that the public had chosen another turtle, the ornate box, to be the state’s official reptile. But, some say, perhaps we should consider the Blanding’s turtle, which is more numerous in the Cornhusker State than anywhere else in the world.
The Blanding’s turtle is considered endangered throughout much of its range east and west of the Great Lakes and in Canada. In Nebraska it is designated a Tier I species, the state’s highest protection, meaning it is illegal to handle them or take them from the wild without a special permit.
But here in Nebraska’s north-central Sand Hills region, the species has found a stronghold. With an estimated more than 100,000 turtles calling the area home, there are 10 times more Blanding’s turtles living here than there are anywhere else combined.
The reason: people. In other places, humans have destroyed or fragmented much of the turtles’ habitat, often killing them on roadways. But here on the empty Plains, crisscrossed by just a handful of major roads, the turtles have a haven.
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Alan Bartels remembers the first time he found one. He was in eighth grade, living in Madison County. And he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“They just have this yellow smiley face,” said Bartels, assistant editor at Nebraska Life magazine and a self-styled turtle nut who has worked on Blanding’s population surveys.
With its friendly face and striking color pattern, the turtle is easily recognizable.
It has a high-domed shell almost reminiscent of a World War II-era Army helmet. Its head, featuring a distinctive yellow throat and a notched upper jaw, pokes from a brown, black or gray shell. It has a relatively long tail and a black-and-yellow underbelly.
The turtle is semi-aquatic, living near marshes, ponds and streams. Elsewhere, many wetlands have been filled in for land development. But in areas like the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, where efforts have been made to conserve them, the turtle thrives.
“The Sand Hills are a large, intact landscape,” said Melvin Nenneman, wildlife biologist at the Valentine refuge. “The wetlands and the hills are all pretty much undisturbed, so they basically have all their requirements for life available in a pretty unaltered state.”
In Nebraska, the Blanding’s is found as far west as the Cherry-Sheridan County line. But earlier this summer, Ferraro and other reptile experts were baffled to find one near Scottsbluff. Ferraro planned to analyze the turtle’s toenail clippings to determine where it originated. Likely, he said, it was moved westward by someone illegally.
The Blanding’s can live for an especially long time, about 60 to 70 years or more. But the turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re approaching 20. They wander from wetland to wetland, looking for mates in other areas to increase their genetic diversity, Ferraro said.
But even then, females produce relatively few eggs, and mortality for the newborn turtles — about the size of a quarter — is high. In some cases it can take decades before a female produces an offspring that takes her place in the wild.
All of this makes Blanding’s turtle populations vulnerable to threats, especially of the human kind. They cannot reproduce fast enough to recover from an especially bad period, and their wandering often places them on roadways, in the path of vehicles.
A turtle’s shell can protect it from predators, Ferraro said, but not an SUV.
But more than a decade ago, as construction crews prepared to widen a stretch of highway passing through the Valentine wildlife refuge, authorities were forced to consider the Blanding’s turtle. And they wound up demonstrating one effective way to save it.
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Minutes tick by in silence on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 83, until the distant rumble of a semi truck grows into a thundering woosh.
This is the danger the Blanding’s turtle faces, Ferraro said last month while he was at the refuge performing a field survey of the species. To illustrate, he set a smashed, sun-baked Blanding’s carcass on the ground. He had found it on the road earlier in the trip.
Almost everywhere the species is found, road mortality is one of the main threats to its survival.
In 2000, as the Nebraska Department of Roads prepared to widen the 7.6-mile stretch of Highway 83 that runs through the Valentine refuge, the question arose of how to protect the Blanding’s turtle. The roads department brought in specialist Jeffery Lang, then a professor at the University of North Dakota, to survey the turtle population and suggest how best to accommodate it.
The solution: three lengths of chain-link fence on either side of the highway. The fencing was installed in valleys where, on both sides of the road, water collects. The barriers prevent turtles hanging out in the nearby marshes from scampering up onto the roadway.
Instead, the fence funnels the turtles into partially submerged culverts, allowing the waterborne creatures to swim underneath.
“There was more done in Nebraska, where they can afford to not pay attention (to the turtle population), than in many of the Eastern states,” Lang said.
In areas without the fence, Nenneman said, 65 percent of turtles that tried to cross the road wound up dead. In areas with the fence, that number shrank to 24 percent.
That’s significant, Nenneman said. Research shows it takes a very small number of adult Blanding’s turtle deaths to have a negative impact on the whole population.
There are other threats. The species has been known to be targeted for the international pet trade. In 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials reported that trade of the turtle appeared to be on the rise.
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So, who cares? It is just a turtle, after all, and there are hundreds of species. Colorful ones, even. Like our new (as-yet unofficial) state reptile.
The biologists, Ferraro and Nenneman, speak in practical terms. Every species, they said, has a place in the local ecosystem. It’s in our best interests to care for as many as we can. If one falls, others will follow.
“The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts,” said Nenneman, paraphrasing conservationist Aldo Leopold.
Nebraskans are fortunate to have the Sand Hills, Nenneman said, which appear much as they did before human settlement. In the Valentine refuge, most of the plants are native, most of the ecosystem is intact.
“It’s like turtle heaven,” Lang said.
The same can’t be said for other places.
“Mankind has done many things the wrong way during our quest for development, progress and profit. Much has been destroyed and lost,” Bartels said.
The Blanding’s turtle roamed the landscape long before humans were around to hurt it, he said. It is a harmless and beautiful species that we’ve managed to preserve in the Cornhusker State. In a way, Bartels said, it belongs here.
And that, he said, is something Nebraskans can be proud of.