'Endless summer' is over for 12 endangered turtles

September 24, 2015 - 12:18pm

Zoo joins WDFW and other conservation partners to return rare turtles to wild

Fall officially came yesterday for most of us, but for 12 western pond turtles raised at the Oregon Zoo, a yearlong summer finally drew to an end today.

Since last September, the turtles basked in the warmth and light of a simulated summer in the zoo's conservation lab, growing large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild. Today, with the help of its conservation partners and local wildlife agencies, the zoo returned these endangered reptiles to the wild at the Columbia River Gorge.

"Here at the zoo, the turtles experience summer year-round, so they don't go into hibernation," said Dr. David Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo conservation scientist. "In eight months, they grow to about the size of a 3-year-old wild turtle and have a much greater chance of surviving to adulthood."

Once the turtles reach about 70 grams (a little more than 2 ounces), they are returned to their natural habitat and monitored for safety.

"At this size, the young turtles are able to avoid most of the predators that threaten them, such as non-native bullfrogs," Shepherdson said.

In May, the zoo released 19 of the largest turtles it had been rearing over the winter, and today's batch of 12 are the last ones for the year.

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, Bonneville Power Administration, USDA Forest Service and other partners. As part of the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, conservation scientists "head-start" newly hatched turtles gathered from wild sites, nurturing them at both zoos for up to 11 months. In one study, scientists estimated that 95 percent of the turtles released back to sites in the Columbia Gorge survive annually.

This year marks the 24th anniversary of the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, begun by Woodland Park Zoo and WDFW in 1991. The Oregon Zoo has been a collaborator in the project since 1998. 

The Oregon Zoo's participation in the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project is funded through the Oregon Zoo Foundation, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Foley Frischkorn Wildlife and Conservation Fund, Globalgiving.org, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.