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Like getting paid for fishing

Sun, Aug 13th, 2000
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In search of the endangered Blanding’s Turtle
By John P. LevellMonday, August 14, 2000

This is work? A real, honest-to-goodness paying job catching turtles, easily my all-time favorite animal with the possible exception of dogs. This is like getting paid for fishing! I try hard to convince myself of this fact, but it isn't easy, as I wade through the mud of the Kellogg-Weaver wetlands, an area noted for its extensive range of natural habitat.

Dr. Jeffrey Lang, a professor of Biology at the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks is the leader of this project. Dr. Lang, or the “Doc” as I sometimes call him, has spent much of his career studying crocodiles throughout the world including India and Australia.

For the last four to five years, Doc’s field activities have occurred “much closer to home” where he has studied the life history and ecology of a variety of different North American turtles including Blanding’s Turtle, a state listed threatened species both here in Minnesota and in Wisconsin. These studies include major reviews of the population status, distribution and management of this species on the grounds of the National Guard Post at Camp Ripley and in the Baxter/Brainerd region.

This in turn has led to Doc’s current research project, a similar study of Blanding’s Turtles in the area just south of that laid back, “Grumpy Old Men,” almost lazy Upper Mississippi River town we call Wabasha. There, in the aptly named Weaver Bottoms, Kellogg-Weaver Dunes and McCarthy Lake habitat complex this relatively large but decidedly inoffensive turtle remains surprisingly common, so much so that the region is widely believed to harbor the “largest single Blanding’s Turtle colony existing anywhere in the world today.”


Recognition of the potential size and importance of the Kellogg-Weaver Blanding’s Turtle population is in large part due to the dedication of Mike Pappas, a second-generation co-owner of Michael’s Restaurant in Rochester. Like some others I know, Mike is possessed by what is perhaps best termed “turtle-mania,” a peculiar sort of condition that causes an almost obsessive interest in turtles among those of us who wrestle with this affliction.

Mike has spent significant portions of each of the last 25 years patiently grinding notches into the shell edges of Blanding’s Turtles at Weaver. This standard procedure in turtle field studies makes the positive identification of individual animals possible even over fairly long periods of time. A numeric or alphabetic code is first assigned to the set number of small shields forming the rim of a turtle’s shell. This is then followed by the application of a “personalized” series of rasped notches or bored holes to these shields, creating a unique pattern of permanent scars as distinctive and readily recognizable as any tattoo.

Before a turtle can be permanently marked it must first be captured, which is the reason this particular day's three-man field crew exists to begin with. Trapping, although certainly labor intensive, is the most highly effective of the many techniques useful in the capture of turtles. Traps come in a number of shapes and include a myriad of differently sized meshed lined hoops, wire boxes, and floating open-topped baskets and bags. With over 100 traps in operation our field station came to resemble a Third World fishing village. I really believe that just about anything that will let turtles in and then prevent their escape is a “bona-fide” turtle trap including at least one modified bird cage.

Traps are placed in a manner that insures that a portion of each remains above the water’s surface as turtles will drown if denied access to air. Traps may be baited with fresh or canned fish, crustaceans and decomposing meat, or are outfitted with lengths of seine netting which function like fences to direct swimming turtles into awaiting trap doors and funnels. Traps are then checked periodically, generally daily, with captured turtles being weighed, measured, aged, sexed, marked and released.

Turtle trapping isn’t always easy, and this is particularly true in the case of the Blanding’s. Unlike some of their North American cousins that occur in larger, more open bodies of water, Blanding’s Turtles typically prefer heavily vegetated marshes, ponds and other similar small wetlands. Although to all appearances shallow, such wetlands characteristically consist of a few inches of clear standing water floating atop a layer of mud in some instances several feet thick. This syrupy morass of muck, which will literally suck the shoes right off of your feet, combined with sunken logs, pockets of water well over one’s head, and other assorted unexpected underwater obstacles makes wading these habitats a difficult, somewhat hazardous and often wet proposition at best.

The reward of solitude

Working these wetlands is truly a unique experience with its own inimitable blend of special rewards. Solitude is one such reward, as few people of sound mind willingly enter these watery realms. Often, while standing alone mired chest deep in a clinging mantle of mud, one all pervading thought creeps into my mind; the one and only person to ever stand on this square foot of the earth is me. The continual exhilaration of seeing some mysterious wetland animal or plant for the very first time is yet another reward as is the thrill of discovering what awaits us in our traps. Traps which are after all indiscriminate, capturing the occasional tadpole, toothy-jawed gar, and twenty pound snapper as well as our Blanding’s. Of course, seeing a Blanding’s Turtle marked by Mike Pappas a quarter century ago is perhaps the biggest reward of them all.

And what have we learned about the turtles of the Kellogg-Weaver region? We have learned that the Blanding’s population is even bigger than believed, with well over 1300 individual specimens captured and marked in the first 3 months of the 2000 field season. We likewise learned that the Kellogg-Weaver area is a turtle filled place, with Snappers, Softshells, Painted and Map Turtles easily accounting for a couple more thousand turtle capture records.

Like similar projects, however, our recent study undoubtedly uncovered far more questions than it answered. Hopefully, programs specifically designed to answer some of these questions will occur in the very near future. If and when they do I hope to participate, as while sure to be hard work it will still be like getting paid for fishing!

John Levell is a regular contributor to theJournal and is founder of the Lanesboro Living History Museum.

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