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Endangered turtle will try for a comeback in Illinois

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By AP/KWMU

Peoria, Ill. – A endangered turtle last spotted in Illinois more than two decades ago could again find a home in around the state.

Wildlife officials are launching an effort to bring back alligator snapping turtles; the animals can live 100 years and grow to 250 pounds. They haven't been seen in Illinois since 1984.

About 250 baby turtles will be released in southern Illinois next spring, after spending the winter at Peoria's Glen Oak Zoo. Similar releases are planned over the next 10 to 15 years.

Wildlife officials say the program doesn't guarantee that the largest freshwater turtles will make a comeback in Illinois. For one, the turtles typically don't begin reproducing until they are 14-17 years old and many don't survive that long because smaller turtles are a food source for predators.

The effort by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources comes after a successful reintroduction of river otters. "For years I've thought the alligator snapping turtle was prime for a recovery program," said Joe Kath, DNR's endangered species project manager.

Nevertheless, restoring alligator snappers will be much more challenging than otters. The turtle project is actually more akin to ongoing efforts for the greater prairie chicken, whose fate is still uncertain despite a restoration that dates to the 1990s.

While the prairie chicken suffers from a lack of grasslands, alligator snapping turtles face a shortage of wetlands. That loss of habitat and over-harvest in the 1930s and 1950s for the soup business were major factors in the demise of these large turtles.

Though never abundant in Illinois, alligator snappers once lived in southern Illinois swamps and along both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Extensive surveys in several promising wetlands this spring failed to turn up a single specimen.

"There may still be one or two (alligator snappers) out there somewhere, but if there was a viable breeding population, we would have determined that," Kath said. "If we want these animals back as part of the native fauna of Illinois, we need to release them."

Not surprisingly, that's a central part of the restoration plan.

Kath planned to deliver 250 hatchling alligator snappers to Peoria's Glen Oak Zoo. Those tiny turtles, hatched by a licensed supplier in Missouri, represent the first in a series of year classes that will be raised and released under the 10- to 15-year restoration.

"We won't really know the outcome of this project, but maybe our grandchildren will," said Doug Holmes, a herpetologist at Glen Oak Zoo.

Because the small snappers are food for predators, most hatchlings will spend the winter in warm tanks at Glen Oak. A few turtles may be put on display, though they will also be kept warm to prevent hibernation. Ideally they will grow to 3-4 inches long by next spring, when they will be released at eight sites in southern Illinois at a ratio of two females to each male.

Those sites, several of which are in the Cache River watershed, will serve as test locations.

"If we find they are successful, the plan calls for us to move northward up the Mississippi River to the Wisconsin border and at least part way up the Illinois River," Kath said. "That's the historic range of the animal in Illinois."

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