Saving Wood Turtles

Photography courtesy Bob Gwizdz

Jim Harding with turtleTO UNDERSTAND TURTLES, you must dedicate a career to them. That’s the word from Jim Harding, Michigan’s foremost authority on the armor-shelled reptiles he started studying in 1969.

“These are very long-lived animals,” said Harding, an instructor in Michigan State University’s Zoology Department and a noted herpetologist (the fancy term for folks who are into reptiles and amphibians). “And if you want to understand them, you have to study them over a long period.”

“I was always fascinated by turtles. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized these weren’t just any turtles, they were special.”
— Jim Harding

An authority on wood turtles, one of 10 species of the slow-moving reptiles found in Michigan, Harding has spent a lifetime finding them, marking them and, in recent years, head-starting them.

He has a photograph of himself when he was 5 years old with a wood turtle. “I was always fascinated by turtles,” he said. “It wasn’t until many years later that I realized these weren’t just any turtles, they were special.” As in a species of “special concern” on the state’s Endangered Species List. Their population is in long-term decline, something Harding attributes to the pet trade back in past decades and a burgeoning raccoon population.

“For years, we’ve had no evidence of reproduction at all,” Harding said. “The raccoons are getting all of their nests.”

Jim Harding and wood turtle nest
Jim Harding digs up a nest and collects wood turtle eggs to give them a headstart.

With the blessing of the Department of Natural Resources, Harding finds turtle nests, collects the eggs, incubates them and raises the hatchlings for a year, then releases them. By giving them a lot of TLC, Harding’s wood turtles are the size of 4-year-olds when he releases them, making them less vulnerable to predators.

It’s a chore; the eggs are delicate and must be handled with care. Juveniles must be kept in separate holding areas, as they’ll bite each other’s tails and limbs if hosteled together. Harding raises a few, has some fellow turtle aficionadas who host a couple and sends the rest to Grand Rapids’ John Ball Zoo. It appears to be bearing fruit; he’s found some of his released reptiles surviving in the wild.

Harding can’t say how long they live; one adult specimen he marked was at least 20 years old, and he observed it again 45 years later. He suspects they can live much longer.

Female wood turtles average 10 eggs. Harding said he “used to find dozens of clutches of eggs,” but these days, if he finds five or six nests, it’s a banner year.

“Some years, I’ve gotten skunked,” he said.

Cottage owners and others who encounter wood turtles should enjoy the sighting and move on. It is illegal to collect, possess, kill or otherwise harass any species of special concern. Except for possibly helping one across a road, keep your hands to yourself, Harding said.

“All they ask is to be left alone.”

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