Saving Endangered Turtles in the Pacific Northwest

by Oregon Zoo Foundation

Bullfrogs look forward to this time of year the way some locals anticipate Hood strawberry season. It's the time when baby western pond turtles in the Columbia River Gorge emerge from months of dormancy and begin swimming about — making an ideal "fun size" snack for the voracious, non-native American bullfrog.

"When you're as small as these guys are, you're the perfect size for a lot of animals to eat," said Oregon Zoo keeper Michelle Schireman. "And the biggest problem they have right now are the invasive, or introduced, bullfrogs — they just scoop them up like M&M's."

Native to the eastern United States — but considered an invasive species here — the American bullfrog is the largest frog species on the continent. It can tip the scales at more than a pound and has been driving pond turtles and a host of other small, vulnerable aquatic species to the brink of extinction.

Last week, Schireman and her colleagues took charge of 20 western pond turtle hatchlings, collected by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Service from sites in the Columbia Gorge. The zoo is "head-starting" these tiny turtles, caring for them until next spring when they will be large enough to avoid the bullfrogs and have a fighting chance on their own in the wild.

Unlike recovery programs for other endangered species like California condors or Taylor's checkerspot butterflies — which take place offsite or behind the scenes — this conservation effort can be seen by zoo visitors. The turtle conservation lab is in the Cascade Stream and Pond portion of the zoo's Great Northwest section.

The turtles experience summer year-round, with heat lamps and plentiful food, so they don't go into dormancy. "Life's pretty easy here in the lab if you're a little pond turtle," Schireman said. "As a result, they grow to about the size of a 3-year-old during the nine months that they stay with us."

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

The western pond turtle, once common from Baja California to the Puget Sound, is listed as an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon. The species is currently under USFW review to determine whether it will be given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Two decades ago, western pond turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with fewer than 100 turtles left in the state.

"We're at a critical point with this species," Schireman said. "We really have to grow them up in their population numbers if we're going to save them in time."

There have been some encouraging signs. In one study, scientists estimated that 95 percent of turtles released back to sites in the Columbia Gorge survive annually, and today nearly 1,000 turtles range across six ponds in the Columbia Gorge.

Global Giving donors are key partners in the fight to save this species. Thank you!

Western Pond Turtle Release
Western Pond Turtle Release

More than 20 western pond turtles returned to their home ponds in the Columbia River Gorge this morning — the latest release in a 25-year collaboration aimed at helping this yellow-speckled local reptile survive.

For 14 of these turtles, reared at the Oregon Zoo, an eight-month stretch of warm days and nights has just drawn to an end. Since last September, the turtles basked in the warmth and light of a simulated summer in the zoo’s conservation lab, growing large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild.

But this year, there were nine additional turtles — and some new helping hands — at the release site.

In addition to participating in the head-start program, the zoo has been treating adult turtles from the Gorge affected by a severe shell disease. Conservation technicians from Larch Corrections Center support that veterinary work, serving as an infirmary for the recovering reptiles, and providing daily care, observation and minor treatments.

Nine of these turtles were deemed fit for return to the Gorge, and for the first time, caregivers from Larch were able to participate in the release.

“We have a running relationship with Larch, but this is the first time they have been part of the final step of turtle recovery,” according to Dr. David Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo deputy conservation director.

Larch, a minimum-security prison in Vancouver, Wash., with the motto “Doing Good While Doing Time,” is part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project — a partnership between the Washington Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College. Larch also grows narrow-leaf plantain — a food source for the federally endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies raised at the Oregon Zoo.

“Sustainability in Prisons brings together people who haven’t felt included in the conservation movement before,” said Joslyn Trivett, the project’s national network manager. “It makes conservation the business of a wider group.”

Western pond turtle work is a particularly noble cause. The species — one of only two native turtles in the Pacific Northwest — has lost significant ground over the past two decades. Once common from Mexico all the way up to Vancouver, B.C. (where it’s now extinct), these turtles are considered endangered in Washington and declining in Oregon and California.

In one study, scientists estimated that 95 percent of the head-started turtles released back to sites in the Columbia Gorge survive annually, and today nearly a thousand of the turtles range across six ponds in the Columbia Gorge.

Thank you for your support of this fight against extinction. 


Students in the conservation lab
Students in the conservation lab

Thank you for your support of western pond turtle conservation! The turtle hatchlings are settled in for the winter at to the Oregon Zoo’s Conservation Lab. We now have the 14 hatchlings who we have divided into three pools. Four smaller individuals are together so that their progress may receive extra monitoring. They are slower growers but eventually should catch up to their cohorts. The other ten have been split into two groups in order to give each of them plenty of room and less competition for food. All ten are now over 100 grams in weight! We are hopeful that all fourteen of these turtles will be ready for release this summer.

Over the past few months the turtles have started to use the new floating basking mats and love their new, even broader spectrum light fixtures and bulbs. Diet changes should also be coming on line this spring to optimize nutritional intake! 

If you are in the area, please stop by and see our little ones basking in the warm temps and broad spectrum 'sun light' of the Oregon Zoo Conservation Lab! We’re in the Great Northwest trail.

Again, many thanks for your vital support.

As we head into western turtle release season there are 26 turtle hatchlings residing in the Oregon Zoo Conservation Lab. These little guys all hatched in the wild: eleven came directly to us after hatching in the fall of 2014 and the rest spent the winter in the wild and were brought in during the spring of 2015.

Thanks to your support through Global Giving this year we installed brand new, wide spectrum light fixtures in the lab. Meeting with WDFW biologists and staff from Woodland Park Zoo we have some big changes to our protocols for the upcoming season!! We look forward to utilizing cutting edge intelligence to offer our hatchlings the very best care available! This will mean new improved (and even more comfy) 'basking mats' in each tub as well as an outdoor area where our turtles will be able to bask in the sun's rays on a regular basis (as temperatures dictate). In addition we are working closely Woodland Park Zoo and our staff nutritionist to optimize their daily diets! Big Changes in an ever evolving program!  

Thank you for supporting the western pond turtles!

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 biggest threat to fragile baby turtles has been 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.

Once again,  a group of turtles at the Oregon Zoo are participating in “head starting” – a chance to grow too big to be eaten by non-native predators. Presently we have seven hold overs that were hatched in the wild in September 2013. These hatchlings spent the winter in their native ponds and came to us in the spring of 2014 as they emerged from their ponds. At that time some were as small as 3.5 grams! All seven now weigh over 150 grams with the largest at 190 grams. In September 2014 these juveniles were joined in the Conservation Lab by eleven recently hatched turtles. Together these hatchlings have spent the winter and spring in the conservation lab eating and basking in the artificial sun of our lights. They should be ready to be released back into the ponds where they were collected as soon as Columbia gorge climate is ready for them!

Two Oregon Zoo staff recently attended an Association of Zoos and Aquariums “SAFE” meeting on the Western Pond Turtle. This is a new initiative of AZA entitled “Saving Animals from Extinction” and is an effort to facilitate range-wide collaboration for endangered species. They are bringing together public agencies, scientists, veterinarians and zoo conservation staff to share information and improve effectiveness of conservation efforts. The group discussed initiatives geared toward raising awareness of the turtle and the threats to its survival range-wide, improving our knowledge of the species’ natural history and ways we can identify threats to its habitat

Thank you for supporting this impactful project!


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Organization Information

Oregon Zoo Foundation

Location: Portland, OR - USA
Website: http:/​/​​OZF
Project Leader:
Mavia Haight
Grants Manager
Portland, Oregon United States
$34,881 raised of $48,684 goal
626 donations
$13,803 to go
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