These hunting dogs are sniffing for turtles… not to eat but to save

JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa-- A group of Boykin Spaniels is helping a threatened species one hunt at a time. The dogs from Montana are specially trained to sniff out and retrieve turtles.

"They spontaneously started bringing me Eastern Box Turtles," owner John Rucker recalls. "(The dogs) absolutely know what I'm after. They know I'm after turtles, and they're interested in any and all turtles."

Rucker says his dogs have caught thousands of turtles for researchers, who weigh, measure and document each one. Monday, May 20, they were out at a property owned by Bur Oak Land Trust near Coralville, sniffing out the threatened Ornate Box Turtle.

"It's pretty amazing, these dogs," Bur Oak Property Stewardship Specialist Jason Taylor says. "They'll scent on something, and they'll start tracking it."

The dogs sniff-out a scent trail left behind by the turtles. Once they find one, they carefully pick it up and bring it back to Rucker and researchers. After that, the turtles are returned to the wild.

"There are some little spots that are remaining and we're trying to monitor the health of the Ornate Box Turtles in Iowa," Rucker says. "They certainly have a function or they wouldn't really be here. We don't really understand their function, but no doubt they have a purpose."

Taylor says once they better understand what the Ornate Box Turtle population looks like in their 40-acre forest, they'll start some conservation efforts to remove invasive species and thin out the trees that are overcrowding. It could all help the turtle population.

"They make the web of life more beautiful, more durable, more resilient," Rucker says.

His dogs struck out Monday and didn't find any turtles. The cool weather put a damper on the search.

"It's not a good day because it was not sunny and it was relatively cool," Taylor says. "So the turtles will hunker down."

But he says the dogs will get more opportunities to go hunting. They'll be sniffing around two others areas of Iowa for more box turtles.

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