By Megan Knowles

Visitors to Eagle Marsh on May 19 experienced life as a turtle, all in an effort to promote awareness and conservation of these native reptiles.

The Little River Wetlands Project hosted its first Urban Turtle Festival, hosting stations, speakers and a walk to raise funds and awareness to help promote some programs the nonprofit hopes to provide.

The idea for the festival first emerged after a biology blitz in 2014, where scientists and community volunteers spent 24 hours surveying all the species of flora and fauna at Eagle Marsh.

“We discovered a number of different turtles that day, including…a Blanding’s turtle,” said Betsy Yankowiak, Little River Wetlands Project director of preserves and programs. “To find this turtle at our marsh…apparently, I did a dance.”

The Blanding’s turtle is a semiaquatic turtle that will travel long distances to lay its eggs in a wetland environment, such as that found at Eagle Marsh and the natural areas surrounding it.

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“Because we’ve had this vast amount of natural resources left in the city, we have this turtle,” Yankowiak said. “It can walk for miles and miles to find the right habitat and so with the increasing roads this turtle’s in steep decline.”

The turtle’s eggs are also in danger of getting eaten by skunks and raccoons, the latter of which see increased numbers in an urban environment.

“That’s a lot of responsibility for me as a land manager. … Our organization is responsible to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to further protect this turtle on our property,” Yankowiak said.

Little River Wetlands Project secured a grant to have an Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne student conduct a study of its overall turtle population to create a management plan for the Blanding’s and the half dozen other turtle species that call Eagle Marsh home.

In addition, there was a desire to get the community involved.

“The end goal is to adapt [the] research methodology into a citizen science project,” Yankowiak said.

She hopes to help educate the public about why turtle conservation is important and empower the public to help protect these creatures – and the Urban Turtle Festival was just the first step in making that happen.

A volunteer talks about different types of turtles at the Little River Wetlands Project’s inaugural Urban Turtle Fest May 19. Photo by Megan Knowles

The day included a 5K fundraising and education walk, with a shorter walk for kids as well.

“The idea is to slow it down and look around. So we…have turtle education all along the 5K walk” that discussed turtle biology, adaptations, life cycles and how to protect them, Yankowiak said.

In addition to environmental topics people already know – reducing plastic use, cutting up plastic rings – Yankowiak said knowledge of how to protect turtles along the road is important.

“If a turtle is crossing the road it’s going somewhere,” she said. Therefore, if a driver comes across a turtle crossing the road, the best thing is to put it in the direction it’s going, not where it’s coming from.

The goal is to allow kids to have fun and remind them to keep turtles wild, and not take them home for pets.

A red-eared slider is shown at Little River Wetlands Project’s inaugural Urban Turtle Fest on May 19. Though the species is not native to Indiana, it is often found because people have released pet turtles into the wild. Photo by Megan Knowles

“That’s really the main goal is to have fun, have fun being a turtle for a day and learn about them. We really want to inspire kids to know when they see a turtle what to do. Don’t put it in an aquarium at home, let it be,” Yankowiak said.

The fundraising portion of the walk was to further turtle conservation efforts, including turtle fences to protect eggs and lead turtles to safe points of crossing.

“The big end goal is protecting these turtles,” Yankowiak said.