For more information on
wildlife recovery and management, please contact
the Wildlife Program.

Phone: 360-902-2515
E-mail: wildthing@dfw.wa.gov

 

 

Photo of pond turtle with students in background.

Western Pond Turtle Working Group
Working group members have included: The Woodland Park Zoo, The Oregon Zoo, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Department of Transportation, Skamania County Weed Control, Bonneville Power Administration, Skamania Forest Youth Success Program, theSustainability in Prisons Project, Cedar Creek Correctional Facility and PAWS. Special thanks to Kate and Frank Slavens for decades of dedication to Western Pond Turtle recovery.


Photo of pond turtle with students in background.

February 2014

The western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) inhabits slow-moving streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands. It is generally brown, olive or black on top and yellow and brown underneath. The only other species native to Washington, the painted turtle, is more brightly colored with yellow stripes on the head and bright red markings on the underside. Non-native species such as the pond slider (Trachemys scripta), which often are liberated pets, occur in many sites and can be confused with western pond turtles. For descriptions, see the Washington Herp Atlas

The western pond turtle once ranged from the Puget Sound lowlands through western Oregon and California to Baja California. This species has declined due to commercial exploitation for food, loss of habitat and introduced predators, such as bullfrogs and large-mouth bass. By the mid-1990s, western pond turtles were found in just two small populations totaling about 150 turtles in Skamania and Klickitat counties. The western pond turtle has declined throughout its range but is still common in parts of California and Oregon. Recovery in Washington will require long-term efforts because the turtles mature slowly, requiring up to10 years to produce their first offspring.

To address the high mortality rate of small hatchlings in the wild, a head start program was initiated with Woodland Park Zoo and later with the Oregon Zoo. Unlike wild turtles, zoo-reared turtles are fed throughout the winter in a controlled environment. By the time of their release in the summer, the 10-month-olds are about the size of 3-year-old turtles in the wild. The young turtles are released at established sites to augment populations or to establish additional populations.

Led by WDFW, the Western Pond Turtle Working Group, continues to work to overcome threats to species survival such as loss of wetlands, invasive bullfrogs and plants, inappropriate ATV use and turtle health concerns.  In late 2012, the Working Group completed a Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) with additional expertise from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.  The process helped to review the status of Washington's recovering turtle population and to prioritize future actions. In particular, recovery efforts in the near future will focus research to better understand ulcerative shell disease and work to treat sick turtles. Habitat improvements, invasive species control and population monitoring will continue.

As of 2013, two introduced populations occur in Puget Sound. The Columbia River Gorge has two reintroduced populations and two natural populations. Through a collaborative approach combining efforts in the field and at Woodland Park Zoo and Oregon Zoo, Washington has released more than 1,500 turtles to date. While this highlights the substantial progress made towards recovery of the species, these populations do not yet meet the needed size, age distribution and natural recruitment of young required for down-listing and recovery.  WDFW and its partners are continuing to work towards western pond turtle recovery.

Ulcerative Shell Disease

In the last few years, WDFW has found that some western pond turtles in Washington have an infection of the shell ("shell disease" or "ulcerative shell disease"). In some individual turtles, the disease is severe and these turtles require veterinary care.

WDFW does not know why this disease is showing up in Washington's western pond turtles. State biologists are working with several partners, including veterinarians and researchers, to determine what is causing the disease. At this point, diseased turtles can be treated and get better, but studies are under way to determine whether treated turtles stay healthy in the wild in the longer term.

Some of the sickest turtles are treated by a veterinarian and provided with care by PAWS rehabilitation center until the infection is cleared. The turtles then are moved to Cedar Creek Corrections Center, where Sustainability in Prisons Project participants give extended care to the turtles, allowing them to heal. The turtles are able to regrow areas of the shell damaged previously. By spring, the turtles are healthy enough to be released back into the wild. WDFW monitors the released turtles to see if they remain healthy and are able to reproduce in the wild.

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