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Western Pond Turtles Released in the Wild

Just a decade ago, Washington's Western Pond Turtle population had shrunk to only about 150 individuals. Habitat destruction, pollution and disease all took their toll on the turtles but the invasive bullfrog proved to be their greatest enemy. Bullfrogs eat tiny turtle hatchlings and the dramatic increase in predation pushed the Western Pond Turtle to the brink. Luckily, the Oregon Zoo in partnership with other organizations created a head-start program, under which baby turtles are collected in the wild and raised in captivity until they are old enough to be released and fend for themselves. By raising them in warm light for eleven months, the turtle hatchlings skip hibernation and in that short time they actually grow the equivalent of three years in the wild!

Western pond turtle hatchling baby oregon zoo 1Photo credit: Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo

"I'm scared Sarge!" "We're all scared son" (Huge ZooBorns kudos to whoever can identify this quote without Googling it)Photo credit Brock Parker, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo

A Western Pond Turtle raised at the Oregon Zoo is released into the beautiful Washington wilderness. I'd like to be released there...


Zoo releases nearly 70 turtles with help of local agencies, youths

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Oregon Zoo is releasing nearly 70 endangered western pond turtles back to the wild with the help of local kids from the Ridgefield Youth Conservation Corps and the Skamania County Forest Youth Success program.

The turtles have spent the past 11 months in warmth and light, which simulates perpetual summer.

“The lights trick the turtles into thinking it’s still summer so they don’t go into hibernation,” said David Shepherdson, the zoo’s conservation program scientist. “The turtles grow and grow, experiencing almost three years’ growth in 11 months.”

Once the turtles reach a suitable size of about 70 grams (a little more than 2 ounces), they are returned to their homes and monitored for safety.

“Since the turtles are larger, predators such as non-native bullfrogs and large-mouth bass are no longer threats,” Shepherdson said.

The turtle reintroduction is part of a collaborative effort by the Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bonneville Power Administration. As part of the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Plan, conservation scientists “head-start” newly hatched turtles gathered from wild sites, nurturing them at both zoos for about 11 months. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of the turtles released back to sites in the Columbia Gorge have survived.

“Spending the first months of their life at the zoo gives the turtles a real edge,” explained Shepherdson. “The Woodland Park Zoo and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have been working to save Washington’s western pond turtles for 20 years. We’re glad we could provide additional assistance in helping save these highly endangered turtles.”

Six local youths enrolled in the Ridgefield Youth Conservation Corps and 12 from the Skamania County Forest Youth Success Program will help biologists release the turtles in the Columbia River Gorge.

“It is one thing to learn about conservation efforts, but it makes a much bigger impact when you actually see a zoo-reared turtle released back into the wilds of the Columbia Gorge,” Shepherdson said.

The Youth Conservation Corps is a summer program that employs youths ages 15 to 18. YCC members conduct work projects to help restore and protect natural, cultural and historical resources of national parks. Projects include removing exotic or invasive plants; constructing or repairing boardwalks, bridges, trails, campsites and fences; and teaching environmental education programs and habitat preservation. Hundreds of employees currently working in land management were introduced to their profession through the YCC. 

The Forest Youth Success program is a partnership between various organizations to ensure that local youths develop and enhance positive life skills. Through the program, youths strengthen their sense of responsibility for forest and community, and learn fundamentals of forest ecology and health management.

Teens from the Oregon Zoo’s Zoo Animal Presenters program and the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School will also take part in the release. 

Just a decade ago, western pond turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with only 150 turtles left in the wild. Today, researchers estimate that there are nearly 1,500. Habitat degradation and disease were, and still are, problems, but the biggest threat to fragile baby turtles is the bullfrog. Native to areas east of the Rockies, this nonindigenous frog has thrived throughout the West, driving pond turtles and a host of other small, vulnerable aquatic species to the brink of extinction.

To help restore these rare pond turtles to their natural habitat, recovery workers take to the field each year. Under the supervision of western pond turtle experts Kate and Frank Slavens, they count, trap and fit transmitters on adult female western pond turtles. The female turtles are monitored every two hours during the nesting season to determine where they nest. The nests, which the females dig in the ground and then cover after depositing their eggs, are protected with wire “exclosure” cages that help prevent predators from eating the eggs. The eggs are then allowed to incubate naturally, and the hatchlings are collected in the fall. The hatchlings are about the size of a quarter when they are removed and taken to the zoo facilities, where they can grow in safety. Unlike wild turtles, zoo turtles are fed throughout the winter, so by their summer release, the 11-month-olds are about as big as 3-year-old turtles that grew up in the wild.

Now listed as an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon, the western pond turtle was once common from Baja California to the Puget Sound. The Oregon Zoo’s participation in the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Plan is funded through The Oregon Zoo Foundation’s Future for Wildlife conservation fund, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To learn more about the western pond turtle and ways you can help, visit www.oregonzoo.org/Conservation/westernpondturtle.htm.