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Lincoln Park Zoo releasing snakes, other rare species into wild

June 19, 2013|By Riley Blevins @Riley_Blevins | RedEye

Lincoln Park Zoo is recovering, raising and releasing rare prairie-dwelling wildlife species threatened from habitat loss this summer.

The zoo, in collaboration with Lake County Forest Preserve District and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, is slated to release several species back into the wild in the coming weeks.

This week the zoo released 18 ornate box turtles in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge near Savanna, Ill. Next month, the zoo will release several jumping mice to restored grassland prairie in Lake County.

To date, the zoo has raised and released more than a dozen smooth green snakes--a small, brightly colored insectivore--to prairies in Lake County. More snakes are scheduled for release this summer.

In addition, Lincoln Park Zoo contributes to reintroduction and recovery efforts for red wolves, trumpeter swans, Guam rails and other endangered species.

“These collaborative conservation partnerships are terrific because each agency brings a unique expertise,” said Allison Sacerdote-Velat, a reintroduction biologist at Lincoln Park Zoo, in a release. “The zoo specializes in small population biology and animal care. We can successfully breed, hatch and care for these species until they are large and mature enough for release to the wild--a technique called 'head-starting,' which gives them a greater chance of survival upon release."

For these species, chances of survival have been threatened due to the state’s dwindling prairies. Illinois’ “Prairie State” nickname isn’t exactly fitting nowadays, with less than 1 percent of the state’s original prairie intact.

But ornate box turtles, which thrive largely in sand prairies, are receiving additional aid from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services. The USFWS has begun a long-term research study and recovery initiative in northwest Illinois, which has historically had a large population of box turtles. The northwest lands, once used heavily for military purposes, boasts nearly 4,000 acres--the largest remnant sand prairie in the state and home to 47 state-listed threatened or endangered species.

"The zoo-raised turtles will join 16 others living in a protected area of the prairie,” said Jeramie Strickland, a USFWS wildlife biologist. “Our goal is to populate this area with 100 turtles by 2015, which includes remnant populations already on site, head-started turtles and trans-located turtles from nearby unprotected areas slated for development.”

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