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Newly released pond turtle finds cover in its new home near the Columbia Gorge.
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Harriet Allen, WDFW Endangered Species Section Manager , discusses the prospects of future pond turtle survival.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Woodland Park Zoo and the Oregon Zoo, will release 40 juvenile western pond turtles into the wild in the Columbia Gorge on Aug. 15.
The pond turtles, an endangered species in Washington, were reared in captivity by two zoos to protect them from predators when they were taken from their nests last fall. The year 2000 is the tenth year of releases and marks two significant events in the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project: The 40 juvenile turtles are the first to be released into a new site in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife national wildlife refuge in the Gorge. And, this year, for the first time, researchers discovered that a head-start female turtle released as a juvenile in the Gorge in 1990 has laid six eggs -- right on schedule, since it takes western pond turtles about 10 years to reach maturity. Both events show progress in meeting the state's recovery plan objective to have at least four subpopulations of 200 or more western pond turtles in the Columbia River Gorge.
"It's very satisfying to be starting with a third site," said Harriet Allen, endangered species manager for the WDFW. "It takes a long time to re-establish endangered species, and with this year's juveniles, we will have reared and released nearly 400 turtles back to the wild, and they are surviving and beginning to reproduce on their own."
The Western Pond Turtle Project began in 1990 as a joint effort by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Woodland Park Zoo. Like many turtle species around the world, the western pond turtle is going extinct in the state of Washington, and numbers have also decreased throughout its range in Oregon, California and the Baja Peninsula. In 1990, only about 150 turtles remained in the state, and nearly all of those were in two populations in Klickitat and Skamania counties in the Columbia Gorge. Once common in the Puget Sound region, they had disappeared. An outbreak of disease among the remaining pond turtles in 1990 spurred many entities and volunteers into action to help save the turtle. If the species were to survive in Washington, action was essential. The turtle was listed as a State Endangered Species in 1993. A recovery plan was published to guide the long-term effort.
From 1994 to the present, Department of Fish and Wildlife staff, Woodland Park Zoo staff and many volunteers have worked with the two populations in the Gorge. Each year, under the supervision of Kate Slavens, western pond turtle expert, they survey, trap and fit transmitters on adult female western pond turtles in the two Gorge populations. The females are monitored every two hours during the nesting season in order to follow them when they leave the water to nest. The nests are covered with an "exclosure," a wire cage to protect the eggs from predators. The eggs are then allowed to incubate naturally, and the hatchlings are collected in the fall.
The eggs are taken to Woodland Park Zoo, where Frank Slavens, curator of reptiles, oversees the head-start rearing of the turtles until they are of a size that will protect them from introduced predators such as the bullfrog and the largemouth bass. Last October, the Oregon Zoo joined this effort and reared some of the turtles to be released this summer.
Of the 40 juvenile turtles to be released, 16 will be equipped with transmitters so they can be monitored to acquire data such as post-release dispersal, habitat use during active and hibernation periods and survival. They also will be marked with coded wire Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT tags) for future identification to assist with survivability and population estimates.
Detailed monitoring of released turtles will be conducted through a cooperative project between WDFW, USFWS and Steven Clark, a graduate student at Portland State University. Transmitter-equipped turtles will be monitored daily for the first two weeks following the initial release to evaluate their adjustment to the new habitat. Beyond that time, they will be located three times a week for three months until hibernation and then once a week until transmitters no longer function, approximately six months.
For all those involved in the turtle recovery efforts, 2000 has been a year of significant progress. Though there is still much work to be done to ensure its long-term survival in Washington, there are hopeful signs for the turtles that so many volunteers and entities have dedicated time and money to save.
For more information see "From the Ponds..." an electronic newsletter of the Western Pond Turtle Project in Washington.