An important part of the Columbia River Gorge ecosystem, the threatened western pond turtle, got a boost last week after Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staffers released young pond turtles at “Turtle Haven,” a protected Skamania County site owned by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
The Sept.10 turtle release wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was the first time Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has released the threatened turtles at Turtle Haven.
“This is a really unique spot with all of the ponds and streams,” Sara Woods, stewardship coordinator for the Friends group, said of the protected Turtle Haven site in Skamania County. “We saw this as a place to preserve for turtles.”
The Friends purchased the 64-acre site in 2016 as part of the group’s Preserve the Wonder land-acquisition campaign. Woods said researchers knew Western Pond turtles, a native but threatened species, had inhabited the spot in the past.
WDFW has been trying to recover and restore the pond turtle populations in Washington since the 1990s, using radio monitors to locate nesting female turtles and then taking baby pond turtles to the Oregon Zoo, where they can safely grow to sizes large enough to survive attacks by non-native predators such as bullfrogs.
“In 1990, only two pond turtle sites existed in the state (of Washington),” explained WDFW spokesperson Jason Wettstein. “Today there are six separate populations. More than 1,800 turtles have been released at these sites since the (turtle repopulation) project began.”
The Sept. 10 turtle release added another 16 pond turtles to the Turtle Haven site.
“Last fall we dug up nests from turtles we were monitoring to see how many eggs hatched,” explained WDFW wildlife biologist Stefanie Bergh. “We took super, super tiny hatchlings and brought them to the Oregon Zoo. They raised them over the winter, and now they’re good at swimming and in good condition and able to escape some predators.”
Bergh said the western pond turtles, which are listed as endangered in the state of Washington and threatened by a mysterious ailment known as “shell disease” that damages adult turtle shells as well as non-native predators like bullfrogs, are a crucial piece of the Columbia Gorge ecosystem.
“Western pond turtles are one of two native, freshwater turtles in western Washington,” she said, “and are a great indicator of wetland health.”
The turtles, which can live up to 50 years, according to Bergh, help recycle nutrients and act as both predator and prey in the natural food chain.
Their presence at Turtle Haven, Bergh said, will help other animals, such as the salamanders, elk and deer that also live on the Skamania County land preserve.
The cute critters also serve as a valuable education tool for wildlife conservationists.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like turtles,” Bergh said. “So, for us, they’re a really good species to talk about in this environment.”
WDFW staffers hope to do a population assessment in two or three years at the Turtle Haven site to see how the western pond turtles are doing, Bergh said.
“When our agency started looking for these turtles in the 1980s, we only found two populations in existence and about 125 turtles in those two populations — one here and one a little east of here,” Bergh said of the Turtle Haven site. “So we’ve grown from two to six populations with more than 1,000 turtles. We’re doing better, but there is still a lot we could do to make sure the turtles survive in perpetuity.”