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Collaboration Provides Sanctuary for Endangered Gorge Turtles

Collaboration Provides Sanctuary for Endangered Gorge Turtles
One of the 15 western pond turtle hatchlings released at the Turtle Haven land trust property this year. (video still by Michael Durham, Oregon Zoo)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

By Erin Middlewood

Friends of the Columbia Gorge bought the 64 acres in Washington known as Turtle Haven with the hope that the land would someday live up to its name.

Signs are, it will.

Earlier this summer, a dozen western pond turtles, necks outstretched to catch the sun's warm rays, were spotted in a pond on the property nestled between Wind and Dog Mountains.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has worked since 1998 with the Oregon Zoo to give western pond turtle hatchlings a head start in life. The state listed the turtles as an endangered species in 1993. Recovery is slow because it takes turtles 10 years to grow enough to produce offspring.

Hatchlings gather strength wintering at the zoo

Each year, biologists collect tiny hatchlings from ponds about 10 miles east of Stevenson, and take them to the Oregon Zoo to spend a cozy winter eating and staying warm. They quickly grow from the size of a dollar coin, easy prey for bullfrogs and wide-mouth bass, to the size of your palm. In less than a year at the Oregon Zoo, the turtles grow as much as they would over three years in the wild.

In the spring, the turtles return. On May 22, 15 Western pond turtles returned home to the Columbia Gorge larger, stronger and more likely to survive.

Once returned to the ponds, the turtles need open, south-facing slopes where they can nest in the winter. They also need logs poking out of the water so they can bask in the sun to raise their body temperature come spring.
 

Securing habitat for the turtles

Invasive species threaten the turtles at every turn—and not only in the form of predators that eat them, but also weeds that choke their grassland nesting areas and block their passage from pond to pond.

That's why Friends of the Columbia Gorge bought Turtle Haven in 2015. The land is bordered by Forest Service property on three sides, creating a square-mile complex with at least 10 large ponds. The last time Washington state biologists surveyed this spot—in 2011—they found only 86 turtles, a drop in the population from just two years before. 

"It's critically important to protect that site and the turtle population," said Stefanie Bergh of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We appreciate the Friends of the Columbia Gorge for all the work they did to acquire and manage it. It's great for the turtles."
 

Partnerships making a haven happen

Turtle Haven needs some work, with a house and outbuilding still standing and property taxes to pay, said Sara Woods, Friends' land trust stewardship coordinator.

A caretaker looks after the land and its resident turtles. Friends is raising money to clear invasive Himalayan blackberry, scotch broom and Canada thistle, cull bullfrogs, and build rafts in the ponds so turtles can bask.

This sunbathing isn't just a pleasant pastime for turtles.

"It's very important that they raise their body temperature. Every time they are disturbed and jump back into the water, it reduces their ability to grow and reproduce," said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager at the Oregon Zoo.

That's why the turtles' stay at the zoo gives them such an advantage.

"We feed them good food and keep them warm until they grow big enough not to be eaten by bullfrogs," Shepherdson said.

It's all for naught if they don't have healthy habitat when they're returned to the wild, which is where Friends comes in.

"Partnerships are crucial. We all have different expertise and abilities," Woods said. "The land trust supports habitat."

Erin Middlewood is a writer from Vancouver, Washington. She enjoys exploring the Columbia River Gorge with her husband and two sons. She's especially fond of the Nancy Russell Overlook at Cape Horn. Follow her at erinmiddlewood.com/ or @emiddlewood on Twitter.

Coverage of Western pond turtle recovery elsewhere in Washington:

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