A pair of Eastern box turtles close their shells to a snooping photographer in a Parke County woodland. Photo by Mike Lunsford
A pair of Eastern box turtles close their shells to a snooping photographer in a Parke County woodland. Photo by Mike Lunsford

It had been a dry and dusty and mostly uneventful walk into the woods along an old railroad bed when I found them, two box turtles barely moving in the shade of a pair of sugar maples that were going from green to gold to orange.

I had gone to the woods to mostly clear my head, perhaps to find a few birds I could photograph, but instead I mostly remember that pair of companions, whether they were kin or lovers or two strangers just met. I couldn’t tell which was the most likely, for they withdrew into their shells, slammed their hinged doors shut, and refused to show their tell-tale eyes to me.

I left the turtles where they were, untouched, for now is the time of the year that they are looking for places to sleep a while, late enough in the season that they are searching for soft soil — although the ridge they were on was as hard as stone — to dig into. Box turtles don’t actually hibernate, they “brumate,” a cool-down of sorts where they burrow into the dirt under a bed of leaves, slow their metabolisms, eat little, and move even less.

There is a soft spot in my family’s heart for Eastern box turtles; their numbers are in decline for a variety of reasons — most of them related to human activity and carelessness, sometimes even malice.

I feel that the pair I saw that day will be reasonably safe; they are living far from a roadway, and are in a woods that won’t be timbered or disturbed, at least in our lifetimes. For all I know, they could be a half-century old, maybe older.

Not long after I found the turtles, I spoke with Indiana Department of Natural Resources Lt. Col. Terry Hyndman, who has been on the job and enjoying it for a long time; he will mandatorily retire this spring in his 39th year at the DNR. Hyndman loves the outdoors; an avid hunter and fisherman, he also touts the department’s TIP (“Turn in a Poacher or Polluter”) hotline, a program that was put in place so that Hoosiers could report — often anonymously — the illegal taking of wildlife or the polluting of soil or water sources that could lead to its destruction.

Hyndman admits that when most people think of poaching, they consider it primarily related to deer and wild turkey hunting, or perhaps they think of a greedy fisherman with a too-liberal idea of just how many striped bass he can haul in. But, Hyndman is just as concerned, as we all should be, for species that few people even consider as being endangered, including box turtles.

“It’s unbelievable, but right now there’s an illegal trade in box turtles. People are picking them up in the woods and off roadways and they’re ending up in Asia,” Hyndman told me. “So, one person takes just one turtle, and it has an incredible impact on an entire population. They are a real at-risk species. Turtles mate by sight and live in very confined areas,” he added.

“One of the things we’ve tried to emphasize is that we’re interested in the illegal taking or killing of wildlife, period. That’s paramount, and I don’t want people to misinterpret it as just being turkey and deer. They are important, but smaller animals are important too. Grouse and box turtles or endangered snakes like timber rattlers, or hellbenders … Why would we not want to protect them? They are just as important, and their populations are at a higher risk than deer or turkey. That was part of the original TIP thinking, but we also went the same way with environmental pollutants.”

Hyndman says the TIP hotline (1-800-TIP-IDNR) is “… underutilized, and its activity is stagnant right now.” He says the TIP Advisory Board, which is comprised of a group of concerned sportsmen and women, has had strategic planning sessions and is trying to figure out how to get people, not just responsible-acting hunters and fishermen and women, to also take part in reporting instances of poaching and polluting that hurt the state’s wildlife and environment. He says the Board is happy to reach out to hiking clubs, birdwatching groups, “… anyone who can get the word out.”

“We teach personal responsibility as part of our hunter education program, and we hope schools are touching on pollutants,” Hyndman told me. “Let’s say that someone is unscrupulous and they have toxic chemicals. They aren’t going to dump that along an interstate highway where they can be seen. They are going to go out into a rural area where it is more likely to be undetected. So hunters and fishermen who are out there blending in, they are our eyes and ears, and we need them to say something. Farmers are a huge asset to us too.”

Although the poaching aspect of TIP is fairly obvious, Hyndman says people who might want to utilize the hotline for reporting polluters need to understand that wildlife has to be directly impacted. “If someone went and threw construction trash in a creek or stream, and there was a mussel bed there, and it caused mussels to die, we would offer a reward for that. Mussels are critical, and protected, and they are such an important part of the environment, that we would act on that. A truckload of spare tires is unfortunate, and it is breaking the law, but it might not affect fish or wildlife, so we wouldn’t pay a reward.”

Hyndman says that his years at the DNR “…have gone fast and I’ve been blessed to have had a job that I look forward to every day.” He plans to retire to a lakeside home in Noble County, “… near my family and where I was raised.” He says he’ll be doing plenty of hunting and fishing, but he and his wife “will be giving back to our community too.”

Hyndman says he is concerned that he is seeing a lot of property in Indiana being purchased by people outside the state who have little connection to the land other than the income they can make off of leasing it, but overall he sees more and more people who are aware of the need to look out for the environment. “I think Hoosiers as a whole are very supportive of our conservation efforts.”

For the sake of the box turtles, we can hope so.

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