Oregon Zoo, partners, return 15 endangered turtles to the wild

Zoo-reared western pond turtles are released in the Columbia River Gorge

Summer came early this week for 15 western pond turtles reared at the Oregon Zoo. With the help of volunteers and local wildlife agencies, the zoo returned the endangered reptiles to the wild at the Columbia River Gorge yesterday, just in time for World Turtle Day.

Since last May, the turtles basked in the warmth and light of a simulated summer at the zoo's conservation lab, growing large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild. Now they're ready for the real thing.

"Here at the zoo, the turtles don't go into hibernation," said senior keeper Shelly Pettit. "They experience summer year-round, and in less than a year grow to about the size of a 2- to 3-year-old wild turtle. This gives them a much greater chance of surviving to adulthood."

Keepers prepare the turtles for life outdoors by helping them learn to hunt for food and giving them plenty of time outside to acclimate to changing temperatures. Once the turtles reach about 50 grams (a little less than 2 ounces), they're taken to the Columbia River Gorge where a team of volunteers and conservationists return them to their natural habitat and monitor them for safety.

"When the young turtles are this big, they're able to avoid predators that threaten them, like non-native bullfrogs," Pettit said.

The biggest threat to fragile baby turtles has been 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.

As part of the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, conservationists "head-start" newly hatched turtles gathered from wild sites, nurturing them at the zoo for up to a year. In one study, scientists estimated that 95 percent of the turtles released back to the Gorge survive annually.

"We've been doing this for more than 20 years now, and we feel we've been successful in preventing extinction," said Dr. David Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo conservation scientist. "We've made the first step toward recovery — but we're not there yet."

The turtles were released into three different ponds in the Gorge on Tuesday, and at each location they were greeted by larger, older western pond turtles basking in the sun — a great sign for the newcomers. Each of the 15 turtles entered the water and quickly swam toward their new home.

The western pond turtle, once common from Baja California to the Puget Sound, is listed as an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive 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. Since then, more than 1,500 zoo-headstarted turtles have been released. Oregon Zoo visitors can watch the small turtles as they grow inside the zoo's Nature Exploration Station.

The Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project is 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.

The Oregon Zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission of inspiring the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, Western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.
 
The zoo relies in part on community support through donations to the Oregon Zoo Foundation to undertake these and many other animal welfare, education and sustainability programs. The zoo is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26 at exit 72. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Find fare and route information online or by calling TriMet Customer Service at 503-238-RIDE (7433).
 
General zoo admission is $10.50 (ages 12-64), $9 for seniors (65 and up), $7.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $4 per car is also required. Additional information is available by calling 503-226-1561.

Media contact: 

Hova Najarian | 503-220-5714 | hova.najarian@oregonzoo.org

Kelsey Wallace | 503-220-5754 | kelsey.wallace@oregonzoo.org