Zoo works with Oregon kids to help endangered turtles

Zoo works with Oregon kids to help endangered turtles
An Oregon Zoo conservationist holds a newly hatched western pond turtle. Turtles are being hand reared at the zoo as part of a head-start program to help give this endangered species a chance to survive the wild. Photo by Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.

From the Oregon Zoo

The Oregon Zoo is releasing nearly 70 endangered western pond turtles back to the wild with the help of local kids from the Ridgefield Youth Conservation Corps and the Skamania County Forest Youth Success program.

The turtles have spent the past 11 months in warmth and light, which simulates perpetual summer.

“The lights trick the turtles into thinking it’s still summer so they don’t go into hibernation,” said David Shepherdson, the zoo’s conservation program scientist. “The turtles grow and grow, experiencing almost three years’ growth in 11 months.”

Once the turtles reach a suitable size of about 70 grams (a little more than 2 ounces), they are returned to their homes and monitored for safety. | Photo Gallery

“Since the turtles are larger, predators such as non-native bullfrogs and large-mouth bass are no longer threats,” Shepherdson said.

The turtle reintroduction is part of a collaborative effort by the Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bonneville Power Administration. As part of the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Plan, conservation scientists “head-start” newly hatched turtles gathered from wild sites, nurturing them at both zoos for about 11 months. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of the turtles released back to sites in the Columbia Gorge have survived.

“Spending the first months of their life at the zoo gives the turtles a real edge,” explained Shepherdson. “The Woodland Park Zoo and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have been working to save Washington’s western pond turtles for 20 years. We’re glad we could provide additional assistance in helping save these highly endangered turtles.”

Six local youths enrolled in the Ridgefield Youth Conservation Corps and 12 from the Skamania County Forest Youth Success Program will help biologists release the turtles in the Columbia River Gorge.

“It is one thing to learn about conservation efforts, but it makes a much bigger impact when you actually see a zoo-reared turtle released back into the wilds of the Columbia Gorge,” Shepherdson said.

The Youth Conservation Corps is a summer program that employs youths ages 15 to 18. YCC members conduct work projects to help restore and protect natural, cultural and historical resources of national parks. Projects include removing exotic or invasive plants; constructing or repairing boardwalks, bridges, trails, campsites and fences; and teaching environmental education programs and habitat preservation. Hundreds of employees currently working in land management were introduced to their profession through the YCC. 

The Forest Youth Success program is a partnership between various organizations to ensure that local youths develop and enhance positive life skills. Through the program, youths strengthen their sense of responsibility for forest and community, and learn fundamentals of forest ecology and health management.

Teens from the Oregon Zoo’s Zoo Animal Presenters program and the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School will also take part in the release. 

Just a decade ago, western pond turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with only 150 turtles left in the wild. Today, researchers estimate that there are nearly 1,500. Habitat degradation and disease were, and still are, problems, but the biggest threat to fragile baby turtles is 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.

To help restore these rare pond turtles to their natural habitat, recovery workers take to the field each year. Under the supervision of western pond turtle experts Kate and Frank Slavens, they count, trap and fit transmitters on adult female western pond turtles. The female turtles are monitored every two hours during the nesting season to determine where they nest. The nests, which the females dig in the ground and then cover after depositing their eggs, are protected with wire “exclosure” cages that help prevent predators from eating the eggs. The eggs are then allowed to incubate naturally, and the hatchlings are collected in the fall. The hatchlings are about the size of a quarter when they are removed and taken to the zoo facilities, where they can grow in safety. Unlike wild turtles, zoo turtles are fed throughout the winter, so by their summer release, the 11-month-olds are about as big as 3-year-old turtles that grew up in the wild.

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 Oregon Zoo’s participation in the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Plan is funded through The Oregon Zoo Foundation’s Future for Wildlife conservation fund, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To learn more about the western pond turtle and ways you can help, visit www.oregonzoo.org/Conservation/westernpondturtle.htm

The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Washington’s pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot butterflies, western pond turtles, and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.

The zoo opens at 8 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Zoo visitors are encouraged to ride MAX or take TriMet bus No. 63. Visitors who take the bus or MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.

General admission is $10.50 (12¬–64), seniors $9 (65+), children $7.50 (3–11), and infants 2 and under are free; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $2 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.

Caption: An Oregon Zoo conservationist holds a newly hatched western pond turtle. Turtles are being hand reared at the zoo as part of a head-start program to help give this endangered species a chance to survive the wild. Photo by Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.

Caption 2: A conservationist releases a western pond turtle reared at the Oregon Zoo back into the wild in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Brock Parker, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.