Joint Effort to Rescue Endangered Native Pond Turtles Proves Successful

A coalition of conservationists worked to rescue turtles from wildfire-damaged habitats, in advance of forecast rain.

A team of biologists—including members from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Endemic Environmental Services Inc., Citrus College and San Diego Zoo Global—worked together over the last couple of weeks to find and rescue the last remaining reproductively viable population of southwestern pond turtles (Actinemys pallida) in the San Gabriel Mountains. The area, which was devastated by the Bobcat Fire over the last two months, is at risk of mudslides and debris flows that could have an extremely negative impact on the aquatic habitat for the turtles.

The team spent days in the field, with the goal of removing some individuals of the native species from the river, racing against time before winter storms place the little reptiles in danger. 

“Seventeen of the 20 largest California wildfires have occurred over the past 20 years,” said Rich Burg, environmental program manager, California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Megafires like these have created devastating ecological conditions even after the fires have been extinguished. In this case, we have a situation where there is little or no vegetation left on the slopes, impacting terrestrial habitat. It is likely that there will be significant sediment flows into the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, which could fill in existing refugia pools and change water chemistry. This can negatively impact the pond turtle population.”

The pond turtles include two recently recognized species that together comprise the only freshwater turtles native to California, and they are thought to be increasingly at risk of extinction. Both species are currently being assessed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. The southwestern pond turtle, which is distributed in coastal freshwater habitats from the San Francisco Bay Area to northern Baja California, Mexico, is now rare in Southern California. It faces major risks to its survival, including habitat loss, invasive nonnative predators and competitors like crayfish, bullfrogs, African-clawed frogs and largemouth bass, which compete for natural resources and often consume the tiny, quarter-sized turtle hatchlings.

“We have become increasingly concerned over the status of our native pond turtles,“ said Ann Berkeley, U.S. Forest Service. “They are a small species with a great deal of charm, and their presence in our local creeks is important to maintaining the biodiversity in small waterways that are found throughout our Southern California mountains.”

Wildlife biologists were able to locate and rescue eight southwestern pond turtles over two weeks. “This is not the first such effort, and almost certainly will not be the last,” said Brad Shaffer, UCLA distinguished professor and director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science. “These turtles will also be part of a range-wide genomic analysis of variation across the species that we are conducting with the CDFW and USGS to better understand and conserve the population, which is the last known of this species in the San Gabriel River.”  

The turtles are being relocated to San Diego Zoo Global. “San Diego Zoo Global and other California zoos have been working to headstart western pond turtles for a number of years,” said Robert Fisher, supervisory research biologist with the USGS.  “Ten years ago, we collected gravid female pond turtles from the Sweetwater River at the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve and brought them to the San Diego Zoo to lay their eggs. The offspring were headstarted at the Zoo, then released back into the reserve, and are doing well.”

The San Gabriel Mountain turtles will be cared for at the San Diego Zoo until an assessment of their habitat is made after this year’s rainy season. When their habitat is deemed secure, they will be returned to the wild. A similar effort removing turtles from Lake Elizabeth in eastern Los Angeles County and returning them after a year in captivity at UCLA and the Turtle Conservancy in Ventura County was also successful.

“Our role as conservationists is to provide refuge and care for wildlife in trouble,”  said Kim Gray, curator of herpetology and ichthyology, San Diego Zoo Global. “We are happy to make a home for these pond turtles until their home in the mountains can be made safe for them and their offspring.”

Members of the rescue group point to the importance of the collaborative effort that went into rescuing these individual turtles, as a model for conservation efforts to save native species all over the state.

“The effort to save these small turtles, and the bigger effort to save California’s at-risk species, is not something any one of us can do alone,” said Paul A. Baribualt, president/CEO, San Diego Zoo Global. “Working together, as allies, we are working to save these little reptiles—and we hope that our communities will join our efforts, and help all of us to make our local habitats safe for these species in the future.”

About San Diego Zoo Global
As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is made accessible to over 1 billion people annually, reaching 150 countries via social media, our websites and the San Diego Zoo Kids network, in children’s hospitals in 12 countries. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible with support from our incredible donors committed to saving species from the brink of extinction.

About UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science
At the UCLA/La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, we conserve California’s biodiversity and ecosystems through research, education and public programs. We work with a broad set of partners to fund scientific research and educational activities that inform and enable conservation management through university-agency cooperation to meet the conservation challenges facing 21st century California. Our goal is simple: to leverage UCLA’s world-class environmental scholars to achieve applied conservation solutions based on cutting-edge research.