Box turtle study first of its kind in Colorado

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GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — Armed with an antennae and the confidence that comes from traversing the same piece of land over and over, Graham Dawson glides like a coyote along hills covered in sandy soil and scrubby plants on a Kersey ranch.

Dawson, a biology student at Skidmore College in New York, and two other interns were on the prowl Monday morning for Chloe, one of 10 ornate box turtles being tracked by the Colorado Reptile Humane Society of Longmont as part of a study in its fifth year. All of the turtles carry transmitters and have three-letter names such as JLX, but they've grown attached to KLO and renamed her Chloe. Jason Martin, one of the three interns who attends Colorado State University, calls her his favorite.

The box turtle study is the first of its kind in Colorado, and the goal isn't surprising: It's to learn about their Colorado lifestyle, including what they eat and when they mate, given that Colorado's climate is much different than, say, Nebraska, where other studies have taken place. But it's also confirmation of what they've already known, including just how far a box turtle travels in its lifetime.

Go ahead and snicker. Ann Elizabeth-Nash, the longtime director of the reptile shelter, laughs, too, especially when the box turtles try to make a getaway after they've been spotted, as if they were going to outrun them. But it's a serious issue, especially lately, because box turtles stay in one place their whole lives, maybe moving as far as five football fields from one place to the next. And that's caused problems for the shelter.

The shelter recently took in its second stray box turtle from the Greeley area in the past couple of weeks. Elizabeth-Nash's theory, one bolstered by the study, is that residents are saving the turtles from highways in Nebraska, Kansas or even around Kersey, putting them in a box and bringing them back to Greeley, where they set them free, probably next to a lake or a pond.

Their intentions are good, Elizabeth-Nash said, but that's a disaster for the turtle. Box turtles don't live near ponds, so they find it hard to survive. It also leaves them open to disease because they're in a new place. And because turtles stay in one place, they try their best to get back to it, even if home is hundreds of miles away. It's a forced migration with usually bad consequences: More than half of the turtles moved from their homes don't survive.

"It's a death march," Elizabeth-Nash said.

Box turtles aren't endangered, but it's not like there are millions of them around. Turtles can live to be 60-80 years old, and a mature turtle that is lucky to live that long produces, on average, only two turtles that can produce their own offspring. The rest die of disease or the elements or, as the scuffs on their shells can attest, predators such as coyotes get them (those shells only work some of the time).

Chloe disappeared for a while, bumming out the group of interns, but they recently found her again, resting in a pool of water by the ranch's windmill, with the help of the transmitter attached to her shell. Elizabeth-Nash would like to study more than 10 turtles, but the transmitters are $150 a pop.

Dawson motioned for the crew to start searching around a large bush. "Turtle!" shouted Caitlin Wilhelm, who has the eye of a kid hunting for Easter eggs in tall grass.

They parted the bush.

"Hi, Chloe," Dawson said.

Finding Chloe, or Hotwax, another favorite, is always fun, but they love it when they see a new turtle on the Kersey ranch owned by Jarred Sater, who didn't want to be interviewed for this story.

Elizabeth-Nash cheered when one of the three, this time Martin, yelled out "turtle" and confirmed it was a new one. The interns do the work, so she rarely gets out of the office, and seeing a new turtle is a treat, even if they've found 120 females in the five years of study. As a director, it's her job to raise funds, not go turtle hunting, even though the latter is much more fun.

They know it's a new turtle because they mark a new one with a notch in its shell with a small saw. The new turtles get the same treatment as Chloe. They get weighed, checked out and probably photographed.

They're the lucky ones. The two box turtles found in Greeley in the past two weeks were taken in by the shelter after knowledgeable residents found one by a lake and another on a busy road. They called Ryan Shepard, 26, of Greeley, when they found them.

"They just know I'm a turtle person," Shepard said and laughed.

Shepard has a red-eared slider turtle and a Facebook page on how to care for them. He doesn't know as much about box turtles.

"But I do know they're not supposed to be found in the city," Shepard said. "They don't live around here."

That Kersey ranch, or the eastern edge of Greeley, is probably the western edge of where you'll see them. You'd probably see them on the Grassland or in northern Weld, but they aren't meant to live in Greeley. Shepard said he's heard from neighbors who released a box turtle near a pond in Greeley, which is exactly the thing Elizabeth-Nash warned against.

"That just means it's likely to wander off into a busy road again," Shepard said.

Shepard alerted the reptile shelter, and workers picked them up a couple of weeks ago.

They'll be safe there, and perhaps find a new home. But it's also kind of sad, Elizabeth-Nash said. Those first few weeks, the box turtles will probably walk in diagonal lines, to the end of the pen, and then back another way, as almost all do in captivity. They're not on a cozy ranch in Kersey, with a cowboy who doesn't mind if they're on his land.

They're just trying to get home.

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — Armed with an antennae and the confidence that comes from traversing the same piece of land over and over, Graham Dawson glides like a coyote along hills covered in sandy soil and scrubby plants on a Kersey ranch.

Dawson, a biology student at Skidmore College in New York, and two other interns were on the prowl Monday morning for Chloe, one of 10 ornate box turtles being tracked by the Colorado Reptile Humane Society of Longmont as part of a study in its fifth year. All of the turtles carry transmitters and have three-letter names such as JLX, but they've grown attached to KLO and renamed her Chloe. Jason Martin, one of the three interns who attends Colorado State University, calls her his favorite.

The box turtle study is the first of its kind in Colorado, and the goal isn't surprising: It's to learn about their Colorado lifestyle, including what they eat and when they mate, given that Colorado's climate is much different than, say, Nebraska, where other studies have taken place. But it's also confirmation of what they've already known, including just how far a box turtle travels in its lifetime.

Go ahead and snicker. Ann Elizabeth-Nash, the longtime director of the reptile shelter, laughs, too, especially when the box turtles try to make a getaway after they've been spotted, as if they were going to outrun them. But it's a serious issue, especially lately, because box turtles stay in one place their whole lives, maybe moving as far as five football fields from one place to the next. And that's caused problems for the shelter.

The shelter recently took in its second stray box turtle from the Greeley area in the past couple of weeks. Elizabeth-Nash's theory, one bolstered by the study, is that residents are saving the turtles from highways in Nebraska, Kansas or even around Kersey, putting them in a box and bringing them back to Greeley, where they set them free, probably next to a lake or a pond.

Their intentions are good, Elizabeth-Nash said, but that's a disaster for the turtle. Box turtles don't live near ponds, so they find it hard to survive. It also leaves them open to disease because they're in a new place. And because turtles stay in one place, they try their best to get back to it, even if home is hundreds of miles away. It's a forced migration with usually bad consequences: More than half of the turtles moved from their homes don't survive.

"It's a death march," Elizabeth-Nash said.

Box turtles aren't endangered, but it's not like there are millions of them around. Turtles can live to be 60-80 years old, and a mature turtle that is lucky to live that long produces, on average, only two turtles that can produce their own offspring. The rest die of disease or the elements or, as the scuffs on their shells can attest, predators such as coyotes get them (those shells only work some of the time).

Chloe disappeared for a while, bumming out the group of interns, but they recently found her again, resting in a pool of water by the ranch's windmill, with the help of the transmitter attached to her shell. Elizabeth-Nash would like to study more than 10 turtles, but the transmitters are $150 a pop.

Dawson motioned for the crew to start searching around a large bush. "Turtle!" shouted Caitlin Wilhelm, who has the eye of a kid hunting for Easter eggs in tall grass.

They parted the bush.

"Hi, Chloe," Dawson said.

Finding Chloe, or Hotwax, another favorite, is always fun, but they love it when they see a new turtle on the Kersey ranch owned by Jarred Sater, who didn't want to be interviewed for this story.

Elizabeth-Nash cheered when one of the three, this time Martin, yelled out "turtle" and confirmed it was a new one. The interns do the work, so she rarely gets out of the office, and seeing a new turtle is a treat, even if they've found 120 females in the five years of study. As a director, it's her job to raise funds, not go turtle hunting, even though the latter is much more fun.

They know it's a new turtle because they mark a new one with a notch in its shell with a small saw. The new turtles get the same treatment as Chloe. They get weighed, checked out and probably photographed.

They're the lucky ones. The two box turtles found in Greeley in the past two weeks were taken in by the shelter after knowledgeable residents found one by a lake and another on a busy road. They called Ryan Shepard, 26, of Greeley, when they found them.

"They just know I'm a turtle person," Shepard said and laughed.

Shepard has a red-eared slider turtle and a Facebook page on how to care for them. He doesn't know as much about box turtles.

"But I do know they're not supposed to be found in the city," Shepard said. "They don't live around here."

That Kersey ranch, or the eastern edge of Greeley, is probably the western edge of where you'll see them. You'd probably see them on the Grassland or in northern Weld, but they aren't meant to live in Greeley. Shepard said he's heard from neighbors who released a box turtle near a pond in Greeley, which is exactly the thing Elizabeth-Nash warned against.

"That just means it's likely to wander off into a busy road again," Shepard said.

Shepard alerted the reptile shelter, and workers picked them up a couple of weeks ago.

They'll be safe there, and perhaps find a new home. But it's also kind of sad, Elizabeth-Nash said. Those first few weeks, the box turtles will probably walk in diagonal lines, to the end of the pen, and then back another way, as almost all do in captivity. They're not on a cozy ranch in Kersey, with a cowboy who doesn't mind if they're on his land.

They're just trying to get home.

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