Specially Trained Dogs Help Conservationists Find Rare Iowa Turtles

May 31, 2019

An eastern Iowa conservation group is taking an unconventional approach to tracking rare turtles on its land. Iowa Public Radio tagged along with a man who’s trained his hunting dogs to find the reptiles for researchers. Counting the creatures will help conservationists manage the land better.

It’s a cool morning on a nature preserve owned by Bur Oak Land Trust in Johnson County. I’m scouring a shady hillside with John Rucker and his four Boykin spaniels, looking for turtles.

“Find turtle, find turtle," Rucker calls to his dogs. He turns to me and says, “did I tell you I’m the only person in the world that does this?”

In fact, there are a number of conservationists and their canine companions doing similar work (though Rucker may be one of the few who lives out of tents and vans while he's working).

When he's not living off the grid in rural Montana, Rucker travels the country with his specially-trained hunting dogs, helping scientists and conservationists find turtles.

John Rucker travels the country with his specially trained "turtle dogs", helping researchers and conservationists track down the creatures.
Credit Kate Payne/IPR

“This is Rooster," John says, introducing the dogs. "This is Jenny Wren. She’s the one that gives me my litters. And that’s Mink. No, that’s Jaybird, and that’s Mink.”

We make our way through the undergrowth, checking in brush piles and under old logs. When the dogs find a turtle, they’ll pick it up and bring it back to be counted.

"You will notice that as soon as they strike a scent trail their tails will start wagging furiously, and then their whole demeanor becomes extremely excitable,” Rucker explains.

Citizen conservationist Judy Felder is one of the volunteers out hunting today.

"It’s sort of like a religion for me," Felder says. "Nature is important and somebody has to defend it, protect it, preserve it.”

Today we’re looking for ornate box turtles – they’re about four to five inches across with yellow markings.

“It’s just wonderful to hold one. They’re gorgeous, they’re absolutely gorgeous," Felder said. "The feel of their shell is…I really hope we find one..."

Ornate box turtles are a species that once roamed Iowa's native prairies along with herds of wild bison. The turtles' habitat was largely destroyed when European settlers plowed the state's grasslands.
Credit Kate Payne/IPR

Ornate box turtles are a remnant species of the country’s vast prairies, where they co-evolved with wild bison. When European settlers plowed the grasslands, the turtles lost nearly all of their habitat. Now they’re considered threated in Iowa.

“We try to manage our properties with the most vulnerable species in mind, and these turtles are the most vulnerable species,” says Jason Taylor, a property stewardship specialist with the Bur Oak Land Trust.

Taylor hopes to restore this site to what it looked like pre- settlement – a sunny, open grassland dotted with oak trees, and periodically burned by prairie fires. How many ornate box turtles are found here will help Taylor decide how to manage the area.

“There are a number of things that we’re going to do simply because we have known presence of these turtles. As opposed to on other properties, we’d be able to mow, we’d be able to burn during growing season, we’d be able to do all these additional things,” Taylor said.

"It's like if you have a symphony orchestra and the richness and the beauty and the sound comes from many different types of instruments...the woodwinds, the strings, the percussion...the natural world is just like that." - John Rucker

We don’t have any luck finding turtles on our first day, due to the chilly temperatures. Later in the week, we go to a sunnier stretch of sand prairie in another part of Johnson County.

Again, Rucker lets his dogs off leash and they run through the prairie grasses, looking for turtles.

"Find turtle, find me a turtle," Rucker calls to the dogs.

It’s a beautiful, clear day and the dogs are on a roll.

“Jason, we’re watching this dog here, she’s acting interested in something," Rucker calls to the Bur Oak Land Trust staffer. 

After rooting through a thicket of trees in the middle of the prairie, one of the dogs emerges with a turtle grasped squarely in its mouth.

"Hey we got a turtle! That dog's got one!” Rucker calls. “Good girl, Mink! Come on girlie.”

Volunteers scoop them up and identify them. Cornell College Biology Professor Andy McCollum and his students Lizzy Ott and Lily Ullenius are here to track the turtles and hold on to some for further research. Over the course of their time in the state, the dogs find a total of 137 turtles.

Rucker says maintaining turtle populations helps keep the web of life more beautiful and more resilient - helping maintain balance in delicate ecosystems.
Credit Jason Taylor/Bur Oak Land Trust

It may seem like a lot of effort for a couple of relatively small creatures. But Rucker says the loss of even a single species can upset the balance of an ecosystem.

“Ok, so it’s like if you have a symphony orchestra and the richness and the beauty and the sound comes from many different types of instruments, the woodwinds, the strings, the percussion," Rucker said. "The natural world is just like that. For every species that winks out, not only is it less beautiful, it’s all interdependent.”

Seeing ecosystems regain that biodiversity is breathtaking, Rucker says. He tells me about looking out on a stretch of prairie after a summer rainstorm.

“The smell of the tallgrass prairie was overpoweringly beautiful. To see the turtle dogs catching ornate box turtles within sight of a wild bison herds after a summer rain storm was…" Rucker trailed off. "It almost makes you want to just weep to think of all that we have lost and what it would’ve been like 200 years ago.”

With the help of Rucker and his turtle dogs, Bur Oak Land Trust is trying to bring back some of what we’ve lost.

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect the work of other conservation organizations that also rely on dogs to sniff out species of concern.