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Outside » Natural World

The Plight of the Western Pond Turtle



In this helter-skelter age it comes as a shock (to me) when suddenly someone says, "Hey, when was the last time you saw, this—or that—animal?" And that was the case when my herpetologist pal, Jesse Short from Central Oregon Community College, sent me photos of a western pond turtle, all excited about spotting it on the Deschutes River, near The Old Mill.

Western pond turtles grow to an oval about 8-inches in diameter, have a hard shell on top, and a softer shell beneath. The top shell, known as the carapace, is speckled brown, while the lower shell, or plastron, is a sort of yellow with dark splotches.

If, when you're out hiking, fishing, birding, or just happen to find yourself near a quiet steam or pond and see a turtle—any turtle—especially one that looks like the one in the illustration above, please contact the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (541-388-6363) immediately. Then, contact me:

The species is in trouble in Oregon, and was once near extinction in Washington state, with only 150 individuals known, state-wide. Threats are many and differ regionally throughout their range, but habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are foremost among them, due to agricultural production, development for human habitation, and in many areas, over-use and manipulation of water sources. More recently, prolonged drought and predation from bullfrogs appear to be additional culprits.

Just looking at manipulation of water resources to better give western pond turtles a break is so complicated it almost takes an act of Congress to get anything done—and we all know that an act of congress to help the welfare of a little turtle would certainly be a miracle without a Daddy Warbucks to push it along.

Of the 327 known species alive today, some – like the western pond turtle—are highly endangered. Turtles have been around a long, long time—long before Congress. The earliest known members of the turtle tribe date from 157 million years ago, making them one of the oldest reptile groups, and even more ancient than snakes and crocodiles.

Fossils of the turtles living during the Miocene times are on display at the National Park Service John Day Fossil Beds Monument near Kimberly in the Thomas Condon Paleontology Museum.

Our once common western pond turtle ranged from British Columbia in Canada; south to Baja, California; east to Mexico; and in western Nevada, Idaho and Washington. Unfortunately, herpetologists in the U.S. and Canada say that there hasn't been a report of a western pond turtle in Canada since 1966. Then, in May of 2002, Canadian wildlife officials listed them on their Species at Risk Act, which is similar to our Endangered Species Act, and, yes, they are candidates for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Endangered Species Act, with a decision slated to appear sometime this month.

Simon Wray, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's non-game wildlife biologist for this region, is one of the key researchers working state-wide on the welfare of the western pond turtle. He told me, "There's actually a lot going on in the wonderful world of western pond turtles. All western states, Washington, Oregon and California, as well as Mexico, have been working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and their SAFE program (Save Animals From Extinction) to develop a range-wide conservation plan and conduct a species assessment."

This is an ongoing process with lots of moving parts, so progress is slow but it's moving forward. Here is a link to the AZA SAFE web site:

Recently the Society for Northwestern Biology published a "Western Pond Turtle Handbook" that focuses on the biology, research and conservation of the species, something they've been working on for a number of years and finally finished. Here is a link to that publication:

Wray added, "This will be the twenty-third year of my long-term western pond turtle monitoring study at selected sites in the Rogue Valley. I'll also be instructing other ODFW, BLM, and USFS biologists on trapping and monitoring techniques. It will be a busy few days, as Oregon Field Guide wants to tag along and get some footage of the operations."

We can all look forward to Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Field Guide presentation at 8:30pm, on a Thursday evening sometime in the near future. In the meantime, Simon reported that on the state level, ODFW and other collaborators have written a "Turtle Best Management Practices" publication.

It's free and ODFW is trying to get it into as many hands as possible; it's relevant for pretty much anyone who may be interested in—or could affect—turtles, positively or negatively.

Then he added, "It also has an awesome photo on the front cover...Yes it's one of mine." The free PDF is available online at

Please report any sightings of any turtles you may see in your travels. We need all the Citizen Scientists we can get!

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