Turtle races won't have turtles next year

DANVILLE — Just days after the 49th running of the Turtle Reunion and Races on Saturday, organizers are vowing to celebrate the charity event's 50th anniversary next year even though the main feature, turtle racing, will not continue after state conservation officials said that collecting and holding so many wild turtles violates state conservation laws.

Mike Puhr, president of the Turtle Club, which organizes the charity event, said the club will regroup and decide what direction to go in preparation for a 50-year anniversary that won't include box turtles, which are collected for the event each year by local mushroom hunters combing the woods in Vermilion County. Puhr also is a Danville alderman.

Scott Ballard, a biologist and herpetologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the department received a complaint about the Turtle Reunion and Races. Ballard said he was not sure how the complaint originated.

But Jill Wallace, an environmental educator with the Sugar Grove Nature Center southwest of Bloomington, said she heard about the races and contacted a local attorney, Stephen Hedinger, who has pursued other animal welfare cases, and he contacted the Illinois attorney general's office, and that office contacted IDNR.

Ballard, who's based in Marion in southern Illinois, said he doesn't know why IDNR was not alerted to the 49-year-old event previously. Ballard said he met with Puhr and explained the state conservation laws and regulations that applied.

More than 95 turtles had been collected for Saturday's event, and Ballard said one of them showed signs of illness, which is one concern with collecting and bringing together a large number of wild turtles. Local biologists who have been studying the box turtle populations were called in to inspect and test, if necessary, all of the turtles for disease. They also marked them as they have other box turtles found in their field research.

Ballard said there weren't any issues with inhumane treatment of the turtles. He said they were very well cared for with plenty of cover, fresh food, water and shade, and were being kept moist.

To collect a wild turtle, Ballard said, a person must have a sport fishing license, and turtles can only be collected from private land with the permission of landowners. It's illegal to take a turtle or other wild animals from a state park, he said.

From private land, a person can collect up to four of the same species of turtle and up to eight total. Anything collected cannot be for commercial use, and the turtles collected must be returned to the exact place from which they were collected.

Ballard said there are also concerns about possible disease spread among the turtles when they are brought together in one place. Ballard said IDNR didn't want to come in and stop a charity event, but it also needs to maintain and protect the turtle population. Ballard said Puhr was very cooperative once the laws and regulations were explained. He said no violation tickets will be issued, because there was no malicious intent.

The racing portion of the event involves placing turtles in the center of a 10-foot circle. The first turtle to reach the outside of the circle wins. Organizers care for the turtles prior to and during the event and release them back into the wild afterward.

The Turtle Reunion and Races was started in 1964 by Joe "Grandpa Turtle" Freeman and Nadine "Mother Turtle" Schramm. Businesses and individuals sponsor the turtles, and the Turtle Club has donated almost $400,000 to youth organizations in the community. Donations go to the Eastern Illinois Shrine, Western Indiana Shrine, AMBUCS Challenger League Baseball and Summer Camp, the Danville school district's special education programs, the Westville school district's special education programs, Danville Area Community College scholarships, the Knights of Columbus, the Grotto Humanitarian Fund, Schultz House and the Masonic Learning Center.

IDNR officials called in Matt Allender, a wildlife veterinarian and instructor in comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois, and Chris Phillips, a herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the UI, to test the 97 turtles that had been collected for Saturday's races.

Allender said one of the turtles was already confirmed to be sick, although they do not yet have the test results to identify the illness, and another turtle was showing signs of illness. They also marked all the turtles, so they can be identified if Allender and Phillips come across them again in the sampling they've been doing.

Allender said box turtles typically get three diseases that are contagious, but one, ranavirus, is the most concerning, because of its high mortality rate, and the fact that it's a serious threat to salamanders and frogs. Nationwide, Allender said, ranavirus has been classified as the biggest threat to amphibian biodiversity.

Allender said in his work with box turtles in Vermilion County, they have not identified ranavirus, but they've tested only 150 so far. The other two diseases don't have as high a mortality rate, Allender said, but they still pose a threat to the box turtle population, because the diseases affect their ability to reproduce, find food and avoid predators.

Puhr said the Turtle Club doesn't want to contribute to the disease problem among the turtle population, and explained the club's decision in an announcement released Friday night.

"We have therefore decided to be proactive and have herpetologists from the IDNR and U of I School of Veterinary Medicine, check and mark all of our turtles prior to their release back into their natural habitats and locations they were taken from," Puhr said in the news release. "We appreciate the help and advice the IDNR, conservation police, and UI have given us in coming to this decision. We hope our mission, as a group devoted to helping those with disabilities, can continue. However, it is also realized, we need to protect these turtles, other reptiles, and our ecological environment from the spread of disease."

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