Photo by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo gives helping hand to Western pond turtle

Endangered turtle population growing, surviving

One small step for turtle. One giant leap for all turtle-kind.

Or, well, at least for the Western pond turtle.

Working in conjunction, the Woodland Park Zoo and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife released more than 100 endangered Western pond turtles into the protected ponds of Pierce and Mason Counties and the Columbia River Gorge.

The once plentiful Western pond turtle -- which was common from Baja Calif. to the Puget Sound, including the Columbia River Gorge -- has seen major losses in recent decades. In 1990, only about 150 of the turtles remained in the wild in Washington. Many fell victim to the non-native bullfrog, disease and habitat loss.

The Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project was established in 1991. The Western pond turtle was listed as endangered in 1991. Today, primarily through head starting and habitat acquisition, the turtle population has jumped from 150 to between 1,200 and 1,500. They are found in Washington wetlands at six sites in Klickitat, Skamania, Pierce and Mason Counties.

“We return the turtles to their homes every summer once they reach a suitable size of about 2 ounces, a safeguard against the large mouths of bullfrogs,” explained Dr. Jennifer Pramuk, Woodland Park Zoo’s reptile curator. The turtles are cared for at the zoos throughout the winter with a regular diet of fish, worms and other high protein items. “Since they’re raised in warmer temperatures at the zoo, they don’t have to hibernate in the winter. The 10-month-old turtles are nearly as big as 3-year-old turtles would be that grew up in the wild."

Though progress is being made, not all is well for the Western pond turtle. They still face a number of obstacles.

“The loss of wetlands, invasive bullfrog predation and plants, inappropriate ATV use and health concerns continue to threaten the turtles,” said Koontz. “In addition, western pond turtles are long-living, 40+ years, and reproduce slowly. Losing an adult means a loss of as many as 30 years of hatchling production.”

Another threat against the turtle that has recently emerged is a condition known as ulcerative shell disease, which causes ulcerative lesions in a turtle’s shell. Advanced cases can lead to lowered fitness, paralysis and even death. “The cause of the disease is unknown but it is a priority of our recovery team to investigate the disease, identify the cause, and, we hope, develop effective treatment,” explained Koontz.

Still, turtles released into the wild seem to have a high survival rate. According to a study, scientists estimated that 95 percent of the turtles in the Columbia River Gorge survive annually. The Pierce and Mason County sites also have seen high survival rates. Some individual turtles from the reintroduction program have been able to survive until reproduction, a good sign since the turtles are slow to reproduce.

“This is encouraging since self-sustaining, wild populations are the goal of the cooperative recovery effort,” said Lisa Hallock, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s lead for reptiles and amphibians for Endangered Species Section.

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