08 August 2017

Considering the Blandings Turtles Dwelling in the Great American Sandhills

A distinctly special reptile of the Great American Sandhills is the Blandings Turtle that has survived for centuries in a great land where natural habitats now provide a last essential haven. A myriad of these small animals have thrived as represented by so many unknown lives found sustenance and a nice spot to place some eggs that would hatch and survive to become adults. It is the nature of this species that it may require lives of decades and great disasters to eggs and young associated with annual reproductive cycles until a few progeny continue to carry on as the next parents of generations that have to adapt to continue the survival of the species.

During their early times amidst the so-called Great American Desert, at a time when there were measly bits of written history, this “happy turtle” was indifferent to anything other than its own existence … on a daily basis to find two most important things: food and shelter. Breeding time meant additional challenges, including other animals that would not hesitate to eat them or their eggs of the small youngsters of summertime. The turtles cared only to go about on a daily basis, to continue its own existence in a changing landscape. A century or so ago, the extent of wetlands of the sandhills were lesser in comparison to the current era. Situations changed as the extent of water features associated with Ogallala Aquifer changed, so more lakes became prevalent on the landscape, in comparison to the realities shown by the original land office surveys of times past.

Semi-aquatic habitats appreciated by these little bits of turtle life probably improved as more often during the known history of the sandhills they had more places to live as the region transitioned from a so-called “desert” to a land of more prevalent wetlands and grass. More young probably survived as there were more places to thrive. A single turtle could have easily outlived any nearby human resident. Moving parties of original native Indian residents riding a pony across the hills and valleys were probably indifferent to some turtle striding from a wet place to a sandy place to lay some eggs at a seemingly safe place for their progeny of a season.

The indomitable march of civilization continued and still is ongoing. So many changes have occurred upon the landscape of the hill country.
Turtles continued their regular routine with a singular focus on their life and reason for being … continue to support the survival of their species.

As the historic and modern eras descended upon their prairie-landscape, threats have continued to be more threatening to their survival. Horse-drawn wagons across dim trails were somewhat diminutive. Slow automobiles across sandy roads were somewhat different. Now, improved highways where huge motor vehicles travels are obvious threats where turtle and other natural life can be smashed. Wetlands of various sorts that were once a haven are gone.

Additional threats loom as in the current era some people want to industrialize portions of the region by placing industrial wind turbine facilities and impose a massive powerline across the hills of sand. There have always been repercussions as constructs and significant changes occur on a large scale.

The Blandings Turtle has survived for so many long-generations across so many decades and obviously centuries. No one has any idea of their natural history. They deserve attentive consideration and as some work to destroy more living spaces in the hills of Nebraska, these turtles deserve to have words expressed for their benefit. Turtle history is important to know.

Nomenclature and Distribution

The commonly used proper name of this species is not acceptable, considering key details of scientific nomenclature. The current name used is possessive, that being Blanding’s Turtle. Mr. Blanding does not own this turtle species and has no possession of them, so the more proper name is Blandings. The original name was determined based upon a local population so long ago hundreds of miles easterly of the sandhills.

Having dealt with this whole idea of nomenclature associated with more than 10,000 species of wildbirds as addressed by international experts, there are essential details that have to be dealt with. Blandings Turtles have their own identity with absolutely no association, nor do they care to be possessively associated with some researcher that many decades ago imposed his name on natural life found in a wildlife place by collecting specimens and then writing a paper for some sort of authoritative publication in order to stake a claim on the common and scientific name. Current scientists may not accept this quibble, but their stance is simply not acceptable, as this turtle owes no possessive naming glory to anyone.

How did this small turtle establish a historic range of such great expanse? It was done each tiny step at a time. How did they traverse great water flows such as the Missouri River? Or even the Loup river. Birds can fly. Turtles have to walk – as measured in a step of less than an inch – or swim across great currents. The range of the Blandings is representative of centuries of effort to find new homes and overcome humongous obstacles just so they could successfully live out their nature.

Nebraska Sandhills

Very soon after crossing the North Platte, the towers requiring vehicular access for construction and management will encroach into habitat areas vital to this species. This situation would continue along the entire remainder of the powerline corridor as far as its proposed eastern terminus in southeast Holt county. NPPD wants to bring “huge” trucks, helicopters and other equipment, temporarily fill lowland wetlands, use mats to cover wetlands and other intrusions into areas with turtle habitat.

After having reviewed documents that convey knowledgeable details of this species, it is a) Tier 1 species of concern in Nebraska, and b) that despite a July 2015 petition to list it in accord to the stipulations of the Endangered Species Act.

There are especially notable items to consider:

1) NPPD would need to have a permit to handle or possess any Blanding’s Turtle, referring to this statement: “In Nebraska, it is illegal to take, possess, transport, export, process, sell or offer for sale, or ship [Blanding’s turtle] (NGPC 2005). Regulations should be enforced” (NNLP assessment). The utility company freely indicates that they will pick up, move, relocate and in other various ways deal with the occurrence of these turtles in the immediate vicinity of any powerline construction localities. Any measures to get such a permit is apparently been ignored, as especially notably in the “draft environmental impact statement.” The utility company is obviously ignoring this requirement. Therefore any of the “avoidance” activities indicated in the draft EIS would be illegal. Any request for a permit should undergo a public review.
2) NPPD proposes to conduct daily surveys during any mid-year construction activities to avoid any incidental impacts on the little turtles. Construction trucks of a relatively “huge” size with multiple “flat-bottomed” tires in comparison to the diminutive size of a turtle would simply crush any animals and vegetation. A suggestion by a report completed by the Nebraska Legacy Project convey that even ATV activity should be limited in places where this species nests during the summer season.

With their decades long life-cycle, the loss of any of these “happy” turtles would be literally crushing in reducing the vitality of the population. The access routes shown in the request to the Army Corps of Engineers for a wetland permit, are shown to occur in lowland places, which, according to researchers, are among the most important habitats for this turtle which has strived to survive for centuries within this home space. Especially notable are proposed powerline constructs along the southern fringe of Holt County where there are wetlands, meadows and other essential floral features that were a recognized place of importance, according to details indicated years ago in a little pond.

These turtles move about within natural lands on such short feet and a limited perspective from a couple of inches above the ground. They have been a feature of the sandhills long before any written history, and thus they deserve to be known for their legacy of silent and essential life of so many turtle generations.

3) NPPD proposes to place silt-fences to prevent any of these turtles from falling into tower constructs, including deep holes in the ground. Silt fences would not be adequate, because they do not conform in the minutiae of detail suitable to the terrain where inches matter. There may be gaps. Any gap of even a couple of inches might be sufficient enough for a turtle on a mission to go beneath the silt fence fabric.
4) The draft EIS for the r-project indicates that this species of turtle has been found at “a small pond on the Holt/Wheeler County line” yet there are no other known details to indicate the overall extent of this species in the various sorts of ephemeral and permanent wetlands in this general vicinity. This includes especially wetland spaces which have an affinity with Carson Lake, Garfield county and eastward at Sunfish lake and Rush lakebed, as well as near Goose Lake WMA. Does the species occur along the proposed corridor in northern Loup county? Placement of any local access routes should not be allowed until a “qualified biologist” does surveys to determine actual extent and whom will present findings independent of NPPD control, though the utility company should pay for the research.
5) the draft EIS states that “previous accounts of this species in the study area have reported its presence on the South Loup River near Stapleton, the Middle Loup River near Mullen, and a small pond on the Holt/Wheeler County line.” There are no references indicated so these statements are conjecture as conveyed.
6) If this r-project is built, a qualified biologist should be present each day during construction in “sensitive areas” with the sole job of surveying for Blandings Turtle, rather than having any reliance on work personnel focused on completing construction in the quickest manner possible.
7) It is not clear how any of goals associated with management objectives given in the “conservation assessment” report prepared in 2012 by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission have been achieved? This does not seem to be an “active document” but instead seems to be empty words by a governmental agency within an out-dated report sitting on a shelf or posted online. It is very doubtful that anyone associated with the so-called Nebraska Legacy Project has done any current field studies of the Blandings Turtle?
8) Why has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not acted on available measures to protect an essential natural species of the Sand Hills and elsewhere, when there are known declines in its overall extent in multiple states? This is a situation which is open to legal measures to address the failure to act by a federal agency on a finding initially issued in July 2015 in the Federal Register, based upon a petition filed in 2012.
9) Where is there an authoritative count of the number of Blandings Turtle which dwell within their range of the Nebraska sandhills? Is this information even available?
10) There is a need for genetic (DNA) evaluation of different local populations throughout the Blandings Turtle distribution in order to compare lineage and biologic variation; is the now isolated regional Sandhills species a distinct subspecies? This is especially important to determine since as local populations have become disjunctive, there is the likelihood that genetic exchange has been stifled, perhaps leading to a decline in the overall genetic vitality of the species. The Nebraska Natural Legacy Project lists this particular focus: “Document and maintain genetic diversity in population”.

Based upon a review of available scientific literature, there is an insufficient understanding of the actual occurrence and extent of the Blandings Turtle within the Sandhills based upon a records-based evaluation.

Consider these wetland districts that could be readily evaluated to determine whether or not this species occurs and its actual population status:

1) Northwest Cherry county where there is Shell Lake WMA, as well as nearby Alkali lake, and northward are several lakes, including some in northeast Sheridan county and into the extreme southern extent of South Dakota. It is not even clear whether the Blandings Turtle occurs at wetlands associated with Lacreek NWR. Several lakes in this area are on the McGinley Ranch owned by R.E. “Ted” Turner so perhaps he could fund studies to determine the extent on his properties, and which should include the numerous wetlands on the Spikebox Ranch in central Cherry county as well as the Fawn Lake Ranch at the western edge of Cherry county.
2) Lakes and wetland north of Cody where there is the especially prominent Threemile lake and other similar wetlands across the Nebraska boundary into southern South Dakota
3) The Mother lake country in southwest Cherry county where there are multiple lakes and associated wetlands.
4) Lakes and wetlands in the Hyannis area where specimens were collected for “freezing studies” a few years ago; Frye Lake WMA, Avocet WMA and Defair Lake WMA are in the immediate vicinity so there could be an understanding how these publically-owned sites might contribute to the survival of this turtle species and other natural life of the fauna and flora sorts.
5) Lakeland in southwest Brown county, with its multiple lakes and wetlands including several which are state owned wildlife management areas.
6) east-central Rock county including Twin Lake WMA, Stockdale lake, Cameron lake and others.
7) vicinity of Pony lake, Otter lake, Wolf lake and Snipe lake, as well as Dora lake to the east within Holt county.
8) Brown lake, Overton lake, Lambs lake and other water places along the south-western extent of Holt county.
9) Near Swan Lake, Grass lakebed, Maurice lakebed, Round lake and other wetland features westward of Amelia, Holt county.
10) Etc.

The only information that is available is a general distribution map and approximations of numbers. A general, estimated range map is not adequate as it does not indicate whether or not the species’ range extends into the sandhills of South Dakota.

Certainly Valentine NWR is a supposedly a refuge for this species, but any actuals are lacking on the situation in 2017. No one associated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be able to provide an accurate census figure for the number of Blandings Turtle that now occur at this lake district which they own and manage. The National Park Service has indicated that this species does not occur along the Niobrara National Scenic River which is indicated to be a part of this species distribution in the state. What could the so-called Nebraska Natural Legacy Project be able to provide a records-based range of occurrence, yet the staff of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission continue to use public funds for their salaries as they rely on sporadic research findings to indicate how they are protecting natural features of importance to so many resident citizens. Their goals are seemingly not being fulfilled because follow-up efforts seem to be lacking?

It is very much likely that this turtle no longer occurs in the eastern-most Nebraska counties which are indicated as part of the overall range. It is questionable that Blandings Turtle occur anywhere eastward of the confluence of the Loup and Platte rivers.

A study issued in association with the University of Nebraska at Kearney as found online, indicated very recently that there would be research done along the Platte River in the nearby vicinity, as there was information indicating the previous presence of Blandings Turtle. None were found following survey efforts. So the local population has obviously been extirpated.

There is an obvious lack of attention to validating where this turtle – as well as many other species of Nebraska’s flora and fauna – actually occur. Our natural heritage is being slowly but certainly decimated. Within the sandhills where some species strive, there is a great demand by some to industrialize the landscape and bring ruination to one of the last, best great spaces in the world.