CEDAR RAPIDS — The unsuccessful attempt to block the $200 million Highway 100 extension project in court isn’t the only way to protect one of Iowa’s threatened species that lives near the coming four-lane.
Biologist Terry VanDeWalle is taking another tact. He has collected eggs, incubated and hatched them and is now raising five tiny Blanding’s turtles, which he will place in the Rock Island Botanical Preserve near the highway extension in the spring or early summer.
The presence of Blanding’s turtles in the county-owned preserve off 42nd Street NE and the turtle’s status as threatened have been the pillars on which opponents to the highway project built their objections and then their legal cases. Federal and state courts dismissed the cases in June.
VanDeWalle has been tracking and studying the Blanding’s population on and off for a decade under contract with the Iowa Department of Transportation. He has concluded that it didn’t take a new highway to put this small population of Blanding’s turtles in grave risk of disappearance from this spot. Rather, it is the loss of native habitat that came with urban development around the preserve that put the turtles at risk, VanDeWalle said.
His effort now to start the lives of five young Blanding’s turtles and place them into the preserve’s population is designed to help reverse the trend.
“Our hope certainly is that it does effect the long-term survival and course of this population,” VanDeWalle said.
As part of their work with the DOT at and near the original 20-acre, state-sanctioned Rock Island Botanical Preserve, VanDeWalle and his associates have trapped eight adult Blanding’s turtles, placed radio transmitters on them, released the turtles and tracked them.
One concern: Seven of the eight are female. In addition, the transmitter has fallen off the lone male.
VanDeWalle, senior biologist with Stantec Consulting in Independence, checked the females a few months ago, and none of them appeared to be carrying eggs. He wasn’t even sure if the male was of age to fertilize eggs.
So he captured the seven females, took them to his firm’s laboratory in Independence and had them X-rayed. Some had eggs. He and his staff induced the turtles to lay their eggs, and three did. Some, he said, may have laid them in the wild before being brought to the laboratory.
In total, the three females laid 31 eggs, seven of which were fertilized. The fertilized eggs were incubated for about 60 days, with most at a temperature below 80 degrees, which produces males, and a few above 80 degrees, which produces females. The thought is the preserve’s population needs males to improve the population’s odds of survival.
In the past couple of weeks, five hatchlings emerged — four males and a female.
VanDeWalle’s work with the young Blanding’s turtles is not funded by the DOT but is an outgrowth of what he has learned from ongoing work with the DOT on the Highway 100 project. He and his staff are donating time to the young turtle effort with the help of a $2,500 wildlife diversity grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Most of the money will go to place transmitters on the five new turtles when they are placed at the Rock Island Botanical Preserve next year.
The DOT is in the process of making changes to reduce the impact that Highway 100 will have on the preserve and, in part, the Blanding’s turtle population there. The work has included shifting the highway alignment farther from the preserve and moving and enlarging an existing pond used by the turtles for winter hibernation. This week, the DOT is opening bids on an estimated $160,000 project to construct an underpass for wildlife, including deer and turtles.
Even so, VanDeWalle said he started to wonder if the DOT work would mean much for the Blanding’s turtles in the end.
“OK, the DOT is spending a lot of money, but if there’s no reproduction going on, what’s it all for?” VanDeWalle said he asked himself.
Karen Kinkead, coordinator of the DNR’s Wildlife Diversity Program, said the department is hoping that VanDeWalle’s work sheds light on how young Blanding’s turtles survive in the wild.
Kinkead said young turtles are difficult to find, and so, without anyone knowing it, a turtle population might be in trouble and not producing young until it’s too late, she said.
Once VanDeWalle’s five hatchlings are placed on the preserve with transmitters on them, he and the DNR hope to learn what juvenile Blanding’s turtles need to survive in the wild.
“Where do they hide to avoid predators? Where and how to they overwinter? Do they spend more or less time in hibernation compared to adults?” Kinkead asked.
He said less than 5 percent of Blanding’s eggs become surviving hatchlings in the wild, and with such small odds, it’s likely that none of the five eggs that have hatched in his lab in recent weeks would have survived in the wild.
His five young turtles will not go into hibernation through this winter as they would in the wild, and so he said they will grow in the laboratory and be heartier and more able to survive when they go to the preserve next year.
“When you have that small a population, increasing the survival chances of five hatchlings, that’s huge for that population,” VanDeWalle said.
Cathy Cutler, planner in the DOT’s district office in Cedar Rapids, said the Highway 100 project is now approved for funding. The DOT is still planning on opening bids on a major piece of the project — the new bridge across the Cedar River — in early 2014. It might take until 2020 or 2021 for the entire road from Edgewood Road NE to Highway 30 to open.
Wally Taylor, the Cedar Rapids attorney who has handled the litigation against the highway project for the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, said the lawsuit’s premise is the damage the new highway will do to the entire ecosystem of the Rock Island Botanical Preserve, not just to the turtles.
“The problem is you’re still messing with nature,” Taylor said. “It’s not just one species or two species; it’s all the species out there.”
Taylor said he isn’t impressed with VanDeWalle’s young turtles.
“Sure, maybe he’s got some young turtles being hatched,” he said, “but when humans think they can re-create nature, can go one better, I think they’re on the wrong track.”
VanDeWalle called it good news that the DOT has taken steps to lessen the impact of the Highway 100 project on the preserve and the Blanding’s turtles.
“But the road isn’t there, and this population is in trouble,” VanDeWalle said. “It hasn’t taken the road to affect this population.
“ … Putting the little guys out there and giving them a chance to survive, that’s our goal.”