Rescuing, releasing rare turtles near pipeline project embodies commitment to planet

Graduation season was a fitting time to release 12 Blanding’s turtles back into the world.

Herpetologist Dave Mifsud felt like an anxious parent sending his children out into the world in mid-May when we carefully placed a group of rare turtles into wetland where their parents were found during a 2018 pipeline project.

After nine months of caring for the baby Blanding’s bunch, all Mifsud could do was let go and hope for the best as he watched them swim away.

The moment was enough to make a science guy emotional.

“It breaks my heart a little,” Mifsud said with a chuckle, standing ankle deep in water. “They become like little kids to you. You raise them and take care of them and start to think they’re going to remember you. But the first thing they want to do is go out into the wilderness.

“They’re wild animals returning to the wild.”

Raised, nurtured under watchful eyes

We rescued two adult Blanding’s turtles during construction of the Saginaw Trail Pipeline project in Saginaw County’s James Township. The turtles were removed to a safe location and the female laid 12 eggs that were incubated, hatched and raised by Mifsud over the winter.

During a 70-day incubation period, the turtles were kept at about 88 degrees. All the hatchlings were females, boosting the odds to increase the Blanding’s turtle population in the local area.

That’s important because the turtles — which can live more than 80 years — don’t reach sexual maturity until 20 years and are vulnerable to predators such as racoons. Blanding’s turtles are protected as a species of special concern in Michigan.

As their release drew closer, Mifsud, contracted by Consumers Energy, kept the turtles outside to acclimate to natural temperatures and began to eat a live diet, catching some of the food themselves. They also were isolated from human contact for the final month.

Returning to their natural habitat

Before returning them to the wild, we named the turtles based on more than 200 suggestions collected from employees and social media. The winning selections included Thor, Taco and Sheldon. To see the complete list, check out the christening announcement here.

Their big day arrived on May 16, when Mifsud helped a small group of employees safely place the turtles back into a shrub swamp wetland area enhanced by the pipeline team with logs and stumps to help them bask in the sun.

One by one, the Blanding’s turtles — distinct for their bright yellow throats and a jaw shape that make them appear as if they’re smiling —plopped back into their native water and swam for the security of grass and weeds.

Charles Crews, our vice president for gas operations, was part of the release team, holding one of the turtles before helping it to its new home. The project embodies our commitment to Michigan, he said.

“We’re focused on people, planet and prosperity for our state and those three things don’t have to be independent, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive and today was a day where planet, prosperity and even people intersect,” Crews told a local television reporter.