More than a few kind-hearted Californians are unnecessarily "rescuing" western pond turtles this spring, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is imploring to the public to leave them alone. Turtles normally travel away from water during a portion of their life cycle, and a solo turtle is not necessarily a lost or distressed turtle. Spring is nesting season, so many turtles are leaving their aquatic habitat and traveling upland to lay eggs.
Wildlife rehabilitation centers and animal shelters report that a surprising number of people have been bringing healthy western pond turtles - California's only native freshwater turtle species - to their facilities, thinking there is something wrong with them because they're not in a pond. The common name "pond turtle" doesn't mean they never leave ponds. In fact,this species more frequently lives in rivers, streams, lakes, and permanent and temporary wetlands. It requires terrestrial habitats not only to nest, but also to wait out extended hot, dry periods or overwinter in a state of dormancy throughout many parts of California.
While most western pond turtles nest somewhat near water, they have been documented traveling long distances (more than 500 yards) to upland habitat to lay eggs and sometimes even farther to overwinter. With water becoming more scarce as the drought persists, more turtles are moving upland earlier in the season to estivate (summer dormancy). People may encounter turtles during these travels and think they are lost or sick, since they are quite some distance from water. CDFW receives many contacts from well-meaning people who report that they have found and collected what they believe to be a sick turtle, when in reality the turtle was traveling to upland habitat as part of its natural activities.
Western pond turtles are designated as a "species of special concern" in California, "critical" in Oregon, and "endangered" in Washington. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in April that the species may warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"Western pond turtles face a number of threats throughout their range," said Laura Patterson, CDFW's Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Coordinator. "They are shy animals and sensitive to human disturbance. Anyone who removes a healthy turtle from the wild is potentially compromising its ability to successfully reproduce and survive in the future. In addition, anyone - other than a licensed wildlife rehabilitator - who releases turtles that have been kept in captivity is not only breaking the law but putting the health of wild populations at risk by spreading disease. These actions are almost always unnecessary and often quite counterproductive, so I urge the public to take a hands-off approach to caring for these sensitive, imperiled animals."
Western pond turtle populations have declined significantly in some parts of the state, especially Southern California, due to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Predation, competition and diseases from non-native species, including pet turtles released into the wild, have also contributed to declines and localized extinctions.
According to the California Code of Regulations Title 14, section 40, it is illegal to capture, collect, intentionally kill or injure, possess, purchase, propagate, sell, transport, import or export any native reptile or amphibian, or part of one, with very few exceptions. Native reptiles covered under the law include western pond turtles and desert tortoises. Once they've been in captivity, they may not be returned to the wild without written authorization from CDFW.
It is best to leave all native wildlife alone. If you care, leave them there!
A brochure with more information on western pond turtles and what to do if you find one can be downloaded at http://tinyurl.com/ljy5cmu.