It may not impact overall plans to pave over a 4½-mile stretch of Peace Trail in Rock County later this year, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says it considers the stretch to be habitat for a rare and endangered type of turtle.
In a notice this week, the DNR announced a planned $460,000 transformation of Peace Trail along the Rock River, from Janesville’s south side to Big Hill Park in Beloit, from crushed limestone to an asphalt paved surface.
In the process, the paving may disrupt an area that’s “confirmed habitat” for the ornate box turtle, a variety of small and medium-sized turtles native to the Midwest.
The DNR classifies the ornate box turtle as rare. And according to the agency’s notice, the trail paving project could result in “incidental loss” of them.
Under plans being jointly pursued by the DNR, Rock County and multiple volunteer trail alliances, the asphalt paving is intended to upgrade a major portion of the trail system that runs along the river between Janesville and Beloit.
Under a contract funded in part by state and local grants, road builder Rock Road Companies could begin work in August to install the new surface.
It would expand access for bicyclists and pedestrians who seek to travel between Beloit, Afton and Janesville.
The International Union of Conservation, an independent group that tracks endangered wildlife, lists the ornate box turtle as being “near threatened” across the U.S. And in Wisconsin, the DNR considers this variety of turtle to be endangered, and as such, protected.
The DNR lists habitat loss, mostly related to agricultural growth, as a main reason for its decline.
Dean Paynter, a volunteer with several local trail groups including the Rock River Trail Coalition and the Rock County Ice Age Trail Alliance, said the DNR’s notice on turtles is the first time he’s seen an alert on “incidental take” risk tied to trail upgrades like what’s planned for Peace Trail.
Paynter, and outdoor enthusiast, hiker and biker, said a section of Peace Trail that runs alongside Big Hill Park near Beloit has terrain that tends toward dry and sandy with stands of old-growth oak forest.
Paynter said that area seems likely local habitat for different types of box turtles, although he said he’s never seen an ornate box turtle—the kind identified in the DNR’s notice— while using Peace Trail between Janesville and Beloit.
One of the more common areas for turtles to lay and bury eggs, according to Madison-based nonprofit wildlife group Turtles for Tomorrow, is in holes they dig along gravel-paved roads like Peace Trail.
That’s both because the gravel surfaces of such trails are relatively loose and easy to dig holes in, and the sun heats them, which helps keep turtles’ eggs warm.
Turtles also are known to dig holes either overnight or overwinter along gravel roads.
In a risk assessment the DNR included with its “incidental take notice,” the agency said the turtles like to inhabit and nest in areas with sandy or soft ground.
A DNR specialist who issued the notice did not immediately respond to inquiries by a Gazette reporter on the slated timeline for the trail work. But the DNR in its risk assessment said the project would be managed so grading and paving wouldn’t disrupt turtles’ hibernation or active seasons.
Measures the DNR plans to implement to lessen the risk to local turtles include a DNR biologist canvassing the trail for turtles while the paving is going on.
Also, the DNR said, contractors will avoid pouring any new gravel underlayment for the new paved trail deeper than 6 inches.
That, the DNR says, makes it more likely that turtles buried under gravel along the trail during hibernation or egg incubation would be able to dig out and successfully emerge.
A bus driver for the Delavan-Darien school district has been fired following accusations of “inappropriate behaviors” in which he admitted to touching the buttocks of at least four girls and showing two of them pornography.
Matthew J. Gribben, 39, of Elkhorn, has been charged with four counts of first-degree sexual assault and two counts of exposing children to harmful material, all felonies, according to online court recrods from Walworth County. Combined, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 247 years and a maximum fine of $20,000 for the harmful material counts.
Online court records list four victims, all of whom Gribben is prohibited from contacting as a part of bond conditions, that range between the ages of six and 11 years old.
Gribben was arrested on June 29, two days after Delavan-Darien School District officials were informed by transportation contractor Dousman Transport of his alleged behavior, a news release from the district states. Gribben was placed on administrative leave and Delavan police opened an investigation, the release adds.
The district’s statement did not elaborate further on Gribben’s alleged behavior and declined further comment.
In interviews with police on June 28, Gribben told officers that he “probably” touched the girls and showed them pornographic material for sexual gratification, a criminal complaint filed July 7 stated. One of the students Gribben is accused of touching was six years old at the time of the alleged incident during the 2021-22 school year, and another was between the ages of six and seven during a separate incident during the 2019-20 year.
Gribben is also accused of having pornographic material playing on his phone as students entered the bus, the complaint states. Gribbens also told police there were other girls he touched on the bus but could not remember their names, the complaint adds.
During interviews with police, Gribben also admitted to assaulting a female child living in his residence while she slept, the complaint states. Gribben’s brother Michael has two open cases in Walworth County for sexually assaulting the same child on a separate occasion.
In a statement, Delavan-Darien superintendent Jill Sorbie said the district would not stand for the alleged behaviors, which she called “completely unacceptable” and “extremely disappointing.”
“The safety of all students is our top priority. Our students are our future, and it is our job to ensure they receive a safe transportation,” she said in the release.
Gribben will be in court on June 13 for an initial appearance. His first initial appearance was postponed after he had not retained an attorney.
Aileen Beth (Frande) Eaton
Lloyd “Kim” Fisher
Marval M. Underwood