SEATTLE ‒ The state’s western pond turtle population got a boost today when Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Woodland Park Zoo released more than 90 of the endangered reptiles to protected ponds in Pierce and Mason Counties and the Columbia River Gorge.
The release to the wild is part of a collaborative effort to help restore the endangered population to the state’s living landscapes.
In 1990, western pond turtles were barely hanging on to a thread of survival with only 150 remaining in the wild. In 1991, conservationists and biologists from Woodland Park Zoo and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife created the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, a long-term, collaborative effort among Woodland Park Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goals of the conservation project are to re-establish self-sustaining populations in Puget Sound and the Columbia River Gorge regions and for young turtles from wild nests to survive without head starting in zoos.
Washington state listed the western pond turtle as an endangered species in 1993.
The turtles released today were collected last fall from the wild as eggs and turned over to the zoo. “Under our care, they are hatched and given a head start at the zoo to improve their chance of survival in the wild,” explained Dr. Jennifer Pramuk, Woodland Park Zoo’s reptile curator. The turtles are cared for 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 zoo returns 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. The 10-month-old turtles are nearly as big as 3-year-old turtles would be that grew up in the wild.
Biologists closely monitor the released turtles. The largest turtles were equipped with tiny radio transmitters glued to their shells so biologists can learn more about post-release dispersal, habitat use during active and hibernation periods and, ultimately, their survival rate.
Joining the zoo and wildlife agency at the ponds were Zoo Corps teens Emily Walco and Alan Carter who have been assisting the zoo over the summer with day-to-day care of the head start turtles. Zoo Corps is Woodland Park Zoo’s teen program that offers high school students a unique opportunity to develop work and leadership skills, increase their knowledge of animals and their habitats, build confidence and expand their conservation awareness in a supportive, fun learning environment.
To help restore these rare pond turtles to their natural habitat, recovery workers take to the field each year. WDFW attaches transmitters to adult female western pond turtles and monitors the turtles every two hours during the nesting season to determine their nesting sites. The nests are protected with wire exclosure cages to help prevent predators from eating the eggs. In the fall, eggs and hatchlings are collected and transported to Woodland Park and Oregon Zoos, where they can grow in safety.
Scientists tracking the released turtles estimate that 95 percent of the turtles released back into the Columbia River Gorge have survived, and nearly all of the turtles released back in
Pierce and Mason Counties have survived. “Thanks to this critical partnership with Woodland Park Zoo and Oregon Zoo, these turtles are making a comeback. The current population has grown to approximately 1,500 in Washington state,” said Michelle Tirhi, a district biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Western pond turtles were once common from Baja California to Puget Sound, including the Columbia River Gorge. However, loss of habitat, disease and predation by non-native species such as bullfrogs decimated their numbers. Today, the turtles are found in Washington wetlands at six sites in Klickitat, Skamania, Pierce and Mason counties that contain a variety of permanent and seasonal ponds, sloughs, rivers, and marshes surrounded by grasslands, oak woodlands, conifer forests or mixed oak/pine forests.
“Over the last two decades, the western pond turtle has served as a focal endangered species for preserving critical landscapes in the state,” said Woodland Park Zoo’s Vice President of Field Conservation, Dr. Fred Koontz. The species has been the catalyst for purchasing and managing 425 acres of wildlife habitat with pristine wetlands near the Columbia River Gorge, and has ensured the habitat stewardship of an additional 300 acres in the Gorge area and Puget Sound lowlands. “This small, humble reptile has become an ‘umbrella species,’ saving countless plants and animals living in wetland habitats in Washington.”
For more photos on today’s turtle release, visit the zoo’s blog at: http://bit.ly/turtle2012
This coming November, biologists, conservation scientists, and endangered species recovery specialists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Conservation Breeding Specialist Group will participate in a Population Habitat Viability Assessment Workshop to review the status of Washington's recovering turtle population to determine future actions, including population and habitat needs.
In addition to the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, Woodland Park Zoo plays an active role in turtle conservation around the globe, such as support of the Turtle Survival Alliance. The zoo also collaborates with other zoos, aquariums and wildlife agencies on Northwest native species recovery projects such as Oregon spotted frogs and Oregon silverspot butterflies.