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Dogs with unique training to help round up rare turtles

March 17, 2019

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Specially-trained dogs from Montana are coming to Iowa to help round up a rare and threatened turtle species.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that the Bur Oak Land Trust is coordinating the project this spring to help gather the ornate box turtle, Iowa’s only native terrestrial turtle.

The turtles are listed as “threatened” in Iowa, and the trust wants to preserve a small population in Johnson County.

“It’s shocking to see the decline in their habitat in Eastern Iowa over the decades,” said Jason Taylor, property stewardship specialist for the trust. “One of the problems is that sandy prairie is also a good place to build a house.”

Removing the threatened turtles from the wild is illegal in Iowa, but poaching them to sell as pets is another factor in the decline.

The trust is bringing in John Rucker, a Montana dog trainer and turtle expert, along with his Boykin spaniels.

Rucker, now in his 70s, was training bird dogs decades ago when one brought back a turtle instead, then another and another, all gently gripped in his mouth.

Rucker used the scent in box turtle shells to train other dogs and he soon became a popular contact for researchers.

In Iowa, when the dogs find a box turtle, they will bring it unharmed to the researchers for weighing, shell measuring and photos.

The data is important for tracking the health and location of the species, along with managing habitat to improve survival rates. The survey and management project are funded by an Iowa DNR Habitat Management grant.

How successful are the dogs? In an Illinois study, Rucker’s canines found 85 turtles during a 10-day period, compared to 12 for human hunters. The spaniels pick up a scent trail as the turtles move through the grass.

“The turtles are very camouflaged and not easy to find,” said Taylor. “If we can find 10 this spring with the dogs, I’ll be through the roof.”

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/

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