On a sunny day a few months ago, I was walking with a dog around Bellingham’s Lake Padden. That park is a great place to take dogs and I’ve so often I grew up swimming during the summer breaks between the school years, even swan across the lake a couple of times. Needless to say, this lake was a favorite spot of mine during my childhood.
But it wasn’t until a stranger stopped me and pointed to a sunny log in the lake that I found out about the turtles. As it turns out, the small lake has been home to several turtles over the years and as I learned later that day, there are actually a few different native turtle species that call the Pacific Northwest home.
The Western Pond Turtle
In Oregon and Washington, the native western pond turtle is considered either endangered or is on the sensitive species list and there are several reasons why. One is habitat loss – as cities in the area grow and develop, animals like the western pond turtle lose access to their natural habitats. The building of dams deplete natural resources and the replacement of wetlands with development impact where the turtles live.
Another reason is nearby invasive species who either compete for the same resources or prey on the turtles themselves. Bullfrogs, for example, are just one of these invasive species who prey on western pond turtles. There are also non-native turtle species that have been introduced to the area, coming in large part from people who’ve left pets in the wild. With pet turtles, they compete with food and there are concerns of shell diseases in wild western pond turtles that come from pet turtles being released into the wild. And it’s not just other animals who have disrupted the western pond turtles’ habitat – invasive plants like blackberries have also caused some damage to the natural nesting areas.
The Departments of Fish and Wildlife of both Washington and Oregon, plus other organizations like the Oregon Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo, have been working on conservation efforts to help the western pond turtles for years now. Woodland Park Zoo’s own program was started in 1990 and help to remove non-native bullfrogs from protected sites, assessments of populations and habitats, and raising turtles from eggs until they’re too big for predators. They’re then released back into the wild.
Surviving the winter
During late 2016 and for the first few months of 2017, the Pacific Northwest (including Bellingham) was hit with a particularly cold winter. There were several days of below freezing weather and many snow days, including a few days of snow at the beginning of March. It was so cold that Lake Padden almost completely froze at the end of January.
· Episode #30: Tis the Season for Brumation – Maryland Zoo’s Off Exhibit Podcast
While that winter was particularly brutal for humans, there is a natural process that turtles and many reptiles go through each winter to survive the cold weather. Brumation is essentially a reptile’s version of hibernation and is the process that allows for many species to survive during the cold, harsh weather of winter. The painted turtle, for example, can survive 150 days in 37 degree weather and can tough out 11 days in below freezing weather. Instead of using fat like hibernating mammals, painted turtles will actually use stored glycerin as their winter sustenance.
Western pond turtles are one of the amazing native species that call the Pacific Northwest home and there are so many that continue to help these animals survive. While there are organizations like the Oregon Zoo and the Woodland Park Zoo that are helping to bring up the turtles’ population back to healthy numbers, there are some ways that individuals can help these animals (and by extension, other animals impacted by similar issues).
If you see a turtle crossing the street, you can help it cross by picking it up and walking it in the direction it was already going. Other than those situations, it’s important to leave the turtles alone! They know where they’re going and it is actually illegal to take it home or to another place. You can also advocate for the restoration of wetlands, as they play an important part for the environment and for western pond turtles.