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Native turtles return to wild to rebuild Northwest populations

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

The future weighs 2 ounces.

We’re at the edge of the pond, and there are leaves scattered in the water that are bigger than the turtle in my hands.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

But now that it’s large enough to avoid the mouths of predators such as invasive bullfrogs, this turtle has a big role to play.

After hatching and getting a head start at life behind the scenes at Woodland Park Zoo, turtle #5 and 24 others are off to their next great adventure: rebuilding the wild population of native western pond turtles in Washington state.

Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

Western pond turtles were once common from Baja California to Puget Sound, including the Columbia River Gorge. However, loss of habitat, commercial exploitation for food, disease and introduced predators, such as bullfrogs and large-mouth bass, decimated their numbers.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

In 1990, only about 150 western pond turtles remained in two populations in the state of Washington. Over the last 24 years, the collaborative Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project between Woodland Park Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Zoo and other partners has saved Washington’s last two wild populations, established four new populations, and head started and released approximately 2,150 turtles.

Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

Recent surveys indicate that at least 800 of those released turtles have survived and continue to thrive. At some sites, evidence has been found to indicate that wild hatchlings also are surviving.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

That’s the challenge ahead for turtle #5 and the others. Survive and thrive—and bring the next generation into the world.

#5 doesn’t yet feel the pressure. Its instincts kick in and it swims away, off to find a meal or a place to sun.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Within a few seconds, it’s disappeared into the depths of the protected wetlands.

But we’re not going anywhere.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists will continue to monitor the turtles to track their progress and protect their nesting sites.

Nesting site with protective wiring. Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

In the season ahead, a portion of eggs and hatchlings will be collected and transported to Woodland Park Zoo and Oregon Zoo where they will get a head start on life and can grow in safety.

A number of eggs from earlier this season have already been brought to the zoo and have been incubating for weeks. As if sensing the momentousness of the day, the very first turtle of the next class began hatching this morning.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Today this tiny turtle's only job is to emerge from its shell. By this time next year, it'll be ready for release. Then we’ll return to pond’s edge holding the weight of the Northwest’s wild future in our hands—all two ounces of it.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

You can help carry the load. Saving native turtles isn’t just the work of biologists. At the core of Woodland Park Zoo’s Living Northwest conservation program is a commitment to build living landscapes where communities—and people just like you—find ways to coexist with local wildlife.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

What you do in your own backyard can make a huge difference. In honor of turtle #5, here are 5 ways you can help native turtles.

1. Reduce pollutants to native turtle habitat by eliminating chemical pesticides from your gardening practices.

2. Improve the quality of wildlife habitat necessary for native turtle survival by joining a habitat restoration program in your community and using native plants in your own yard.

3. Use a reputable source when purchasing or adopting pet turtles and make sure the species is legal to own and the animals have been sourced legally.

4. Take care not to release unwanted pets or animals into wild habitat—invasive species can outcompete or prey on native turtles. Call your local animal shelter to find a new home for an unwanted pet.

5. Support Woodland Park Zoo and other organizations working to conserve endangered turtles. Tell your friends about turtle conservation and ways they can help, share this story online, take a trip to the zoo with friends and family to learn more, make a donation to the zoo’s conservation program…there are many ways to show your support and help us make a difference for turtles!