Fourteen additional turtles were returned to a state wildlife site near
Steilacoom, where they were collected as hatchlings and nurtured in
captivity to improve their chance of survival.
All are graduates of a recovery program for state endangered western pond
turtles involving the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW),
Woodland Park Zoo, Oregon Zoo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
others who have been working since 1990 to restore the native species.
Fifteen of the turtles released this week were bred from captive adults at
the zoo. Most, however, were collected from wild sites and nurtured at the
zoo until they were large enough to prevent predators such as bullfrogs and
largemouth bass from swallowing them whole.
That strategy, called headstarting, has a simple goal, said Harriet Allen,
who oversees WDFW’s Threatened and Endangered Wildlife Program.
The key is to raise them until they are bigger than a bullfrog’s mouth,
Allen said. At the zoo, that generally takes about 10 months. In the wild,
it can take two or three years if they make it at all.
By keeping turtles at warmer temperatures and feeding them throughout the
winter, they grow much faster, making them less susceptible to predators,
Once common in the Puget Sound region and the Columbia Gorge, the western
pond turtle declined to just 150 known animals in Washington by the time
the state listed it as an endangered species in 1993, Allen said. Loss of
habitat, disease and predation by non-native species such as bullfrogs
decimated their numbers.
This week’s releases will bring the total number of turtles in the wild to
about 1,000 at three sites in the Columbia Gorge, the wildlife site near
Steilacoom and the new site on property owned by the Washington Department
of Natural Resources (DNR) in Mason County.
The western pond turtle is a species of concern under DNR’s trust land
Habitat Conservation Plan, said Commissioner of Public Lands Doug
Sutherland, who leads the Department of Natural Resources. We are so
pleased to be able to provide crucial habitat that helps in a species’
While monitoring turtles released at the new site, WDFW and its partners in
the recovery effort are already preparing for next year’s head start class.
In spring, biologists attached radio transmitters to the shells of 17
female turtles at the WDFW Wildlife Area near Steilacoom so they can locate
their hatchlings for collection in fall. The female turtles are monitored
every two hours during the nesting season to determine where they nest,
said Kelly McAllister, WDFW district wildlife biologist.
Once the nests are established, they are covered with wire cages to prevent
predators from eating the eggs. Once the eggs hatch, young turtles about
the size of a quarter are removed from the nests and taken to the zoo,
where they can grow in safety.
The ultimate goal of the program is for enough young turtles to survive in
the wild without headstarting, Allen said. But, for now, the risks from
bullfrogs are just too great and we need the ‘headstarted’ turtles to
establish new populations.’
Allen noted that the non-native bullfrog is classified by WDFW as a
prohibited aquatic animal species, which poses a threat to the recovery of
western pond turtles and other native reptiles and amphibians in
That designation means it’s illegal to possess or sell bullfrogs and they
can be hunted without a license, she said. There are no bag limits, and the
season is open year-round.
The Western Pond Turtle Recovery Program is a part of Woodland Park Zoo’s
Partners for Wildlife conservation initiative, an expansion of the zoo’s
efforts and resources in proven wildlife conservation projects, explained
Woodland Park Zoo Conservation Director Dr. Lisa Dabek. The zoo currently
participates on 45 field conservation projects in more than 29 countries
around the globe.