Wild turtles get a pond makeover thanks to zoo, partners

September 8, 2022 - 9:45am

Wild Turtles Get A Pond Makeover

Biologists bet on basking structures in Yamhill County to improve turtle habitats


If you build it, they will come. Not just a motto for baseball enthusiasts, those words inspired wildlife biologist Laura Guderyahn and her team last winter as they built and installed turtle basking structures in 10 Yamhill County ponds. This summer, their work paid off in the form of dozens of endangered northwestern pond turtles basking in the sun.

“In Oregon, pond turtles are in decline, so it’s pretty rare to find them,” Guderyahn said. “And there are many areas of the state where nobody’s ever looked for them.” 

Guderyahn thought a survey of Yamhill County would help conservationists plan for the future of pond turtles, so she teamed up with the Oregon Zoo to put out a “call for ponds,” seeking area property owners who might let biologists survey their land. The ask was an overwhelming success — Guderyahn and her team surveyed 32 properties and returned in January to place basking structures in 10 different ponds in the hopes of boosting turtle populations throughout the region.

“Turtles need to be up in the sun basking for six to eight hours a day,” Guderyahn said. And since many ponds on private property no longer have basking habitat, due to erosion or landscaping, she lends a helping hand by installing floating platforms for the turtles to use.

After placing the structures in January, Guderyahn and her team returned to the ponds several times this summer to observe the turtles. At one site, up to 20 northwestern pond turtles were seen basking at once. Guderyahn is hopeful that turtles will find the platforms and continue using them for years to come.  

“I’d like the turtles to use the platforms in a way that keeps those populations healthy and reproducing,” said Guderyahn. “So far it’s going very well.”

The northwestern pond turtle, also known as the western pond turtle, is listed as an endangered species in Washington and a critical species in Oregon. Two decades ago, western pond turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with fewer than 100 turtles left in the state. 

The Yamhill turtle survey was one of several projects supported by donors to the Oregon Zoo Foundation through the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund, which finances efforts that help implement the Oregon Conservation Strategy, a blueprint for conserving the state’s wildlife and habitats. The OCRF also invests in outdoor recreation opportunities that connect Oregonians to the natural world and increase equity for underserved communities. Learn more at oregonisalive.org.

"Creating a brighter future for these rare turtles is a team effort, and this project was an inspiring example of what we can achieve when we work together," said Julie Fitzgerald, executive director of the Oregon Zoo Foundation. “Our members and supporters are key to this conservation partnership, helping make our state a better place for wildlife, people and the habitats we all depend on.”

The zoo also participates in the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, 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, U.S. Forest Service and other partners to restore northwestern pond turtle populations in the wild.