Almost extinct 30 years ago, turtles in western Washington are slowly recovering

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Outside a field office in Pierce County, wildlife biologist Emily Butler notches the shell of a western pond turtle.

Only two species of turtles in Washington are native. And one of them, the western pond turtle, nearly disappeared here in the 1990s. 30 years ago, the state began working with partners at Woodland Park Zoo to bring them back.

The shell of this western pond turtle measures about six inches in diameter. Butler tags him with the code from the number she gave him, “1176”. She says it doesn’t hurt. But the tortoise retreated into its shell.

Parker Miles Blohm

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KNKX

Wildlife biologist Emily Butler files notches in the shell of a Western Pond Turtle.

“I think it’s kind of like doing dental work for us,” Butler said, quickly counting the little squares on the hull, called scoots, and rhythmically recording notches around the edges.

“They feel the vibration, I guess, in their shell, but I try to be quick and then it’s done. Yet they prefer to bask in the sun in a pond.

Butler’s team collected about nine turtles of varying sizes from ponds in the nearby protected wetland. Some are lively and active, looking like they are trying to swim away, while others remain curled up in their shells. Interns help count and catalog them and check them for signs of the latest threat they face: shell disease.

Turtles showing signs of disease, often identified by red spots that indicate lesions below the surface of the carapace, are swabbed and photographed. State biologists track the effects of lesions over time.

Most of these turtles will live to be at least 50 years old, so scientists believe the lesions are harming them. But it is an emerging threat and very little is known so far.

Other threats include habitat loss and excessive competition from non-native turtle species, usually former pets released into the wild by well-meaning people.

Western pond turtles that are born in the wild in Washington state, the ones that need those notches, are rare.

“Before, we received one a year. And so this year, we are on our third. So it’s very exciting,” says Butler.

Most of the animals collected here came from eggs hatched in Seattle at the Woodland Park Zoo. Kevin Murphy is curator there.

“What we’re doing is making sure all of those eggs hatch and grow to survival size,” Murphy said.

When they first hatch in an incubator, they are about the size of a quarter. To survive, they need to grow to about ten times that size, so they’re bigger than a bullfrog’s mouth. Bullfrogs like to snack on baby turtles.

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Parker Miles Blohm

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KNKX

Bill McDowell, a zookeeper at the Woodland Park Zoo, watches the hatchlings in large bins. They are fed a rotating diet of protein to keep them as wild as possible.

At the zoo, the hatchlings are fed a regular diet of mostly protein by their caretaker, Bill McDowell.

“One day, it’s the crickets. One day it’s about mealworms. One day it’s shrimp, one day it’s earthworms,” ​​McDowell said.

The goal is to keep them as wild as possible, alternating their feeding and making them work to find their food. Black curtains surround the tanks where they are raised to keep them shy. As tiny as they are, they swim quickly and flee through the water whenever a human passes by.

The turtles leave the lab once they are big enough to be microchipped. McDowell said it was still a party, but he didn’t consider it a success yet. There is so much work against this critically endangered species.

Yet just talking about newborns makes this sixty-year-old zookeeper laugh.

“You think after every year that you’ve been doing it for so many years, it’s like, oh, there’s another baby turtle. But it’s actually like, oh, there’s a baby turtle, you know, it’s like it never changes,” McDowell said.

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Parker Miles Blohm

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KNKX

Once the hatchlings reach a size large enough for a microchip, they are released into the wild. Bill McDowell says it’s still a celebratory moment, but he doesn’t consider it a success yet. There is so much work against this critically endangered species, including invasive bullfrogs and carapace disease.

His enthusiasm is contagious. He adores babies, with their long tails, a peculiarity of the Western Pond Turtle, and the temporary little “egg tooth” that all hatchlings have on their snouts. It’s what they use to navigate their way out of the shell and into the world.

“I mean, it’s hard not to like a turtle. If someone says, ‘oh, I can’t stand turtles!’ Wouldn’t that make you suspicious? I mean, seriously,” McDowell said with a laugh.

Back in the state’s habitat area, on one of the first sunny days of spring, Butler and his interns are also all smiles as they check their traps in several ponds.

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Parker Miles Blohm

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KNKX

Emily Butler’s team checks traps in and around the pond for turtles.

Some are baited with sardines, others simply with the sun. They set up rafts for the turtles to bask in, with nets in the center to catch them. But they are super temperamental and often end up in the water.

“Sometimes when you come here because it’s high allergy season, you sneeze on the way up here. And all the turtles “ploop!” — in the pond. So you have to wait for them to come out.

The real excitement isn’t in the ponds though. It is in the protected nests in the surrounding wetlands. Butler leads the way to a grassy area with a wire cage on the floor. She scans the area, looking to see if any hatchlings have already exited through one of the wire doors, to the nearest pond.

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Parker Miles Blohm

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KNKX

Emily Butler lifts the protective cage covering a suspected turtle nest near the protected wetland. The enclosure protects the hatchlings from predators in the area, but allows the turtles a safe escape once they are ready to leave the nest.

She bends down to lift the cage. In the center is a small canoe with a newly emerged newborn baby. This newborn’s vulnerability has everyone on the scene holding their breath or gasping when they see it.

“Here he is, he’s just been released into the world,” Butler said with a smile.

She hopes that within three years this baby turtle will be big enough to get her notches, like the three she counted in this year’s annual survey.

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Parker Miles Blohm

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KNKX

Under the cage, a newborn baby in a small canoe. Butler hopes that within three years this baby turtle will have grown enough to get her notches, like the three she counted in this year’s annual survey.

The number of western pond turtles in the Puget Sound lowlands is now about ten times higher than it was when the species was reintroduced three decades ago, with only 16 or 17 animals known to begin with.

But the ultimate goal for the Puget Sound region is a minimum of three self-sustaining populations of 200 or more, with a good dispersal of age classes. Neither of the two populations that the state still protects is still there. The monitoring and control of shell diseases are now a priority.

Like turtles, progress is usually slow.

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