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Two West Coast pond turtles proposed for endangered species protection

Western pond turtle
California Dept. of Water Resources
Western pond turtle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTVZ) -- In response to a petition and lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday proposed to protect northwestern and southwestern pond turtles in California, Oregon and Washington as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

"Endangered Species Act protections are a much-needed lifeline for our dwindling native West Coast turtles," said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center. "Pond turtles are crucial to healthy rivers and wetlands, and losing them would impoverish aquatic ecosystems."

The southwestern pond turtle lives in Southern California from Monterey County southward and into northern Baja California, Mexico. The northwestern pond turtle is found in Washington, Oregon, and California north of the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Central Valley.

The name "pond turtle" is something of a misnomer, because this species frequently lives in rivers. Pond turtles inhabit permanent and intermittent waters of rivers, creeks, small lakes and ponds, marshes, irrigation ditches and reservoirs.

Turtles bask on land or near water on logs, branches or boulders. They require terrestrial habitat for nesting and overwintering, which is a form of hibernation. Pond turtles are highly opportunistic eaters and will consume almost anything they can catch and overpower.

Pond turtles are imperiled by habitat loss and fragmentation from urban development and agriculture, dam construction, disease, invasive species and climate change.

A respiratory disease epidemic in Washington in 1990 left a total population of fewer than 100 pond turtles in the state, though there have been some reintroduction efforts. They have been nearly wiped out in lower Puget Sound, and only two populations remain in the Columbia River Gorge.

In the Willamette Valley in Oregon, pond turtles appear to have declined by 99%. In California's Central Valley, where most of their natural habitat has been eliminated, surveys detected turtles at only 15 of 55 sites, with sizable populations only at five sites. Pond turtle numbers are in precipitous decline in Southern California, with few stable, reproducing populations known between Los Angeles and the Mexican border.

At the state level, pond turtles are listed as endangered in Washington, sensitive/critical in Oregon, and a species of special concern in California. Although habitat destruction is one of the biggest threats to the turtle, none of these state laws provided effective habitat protection.

A 2014 genetic analysis of pond turtles along the West Coast determined they are two distinct species, each of which is more endangered than previously thought.

The Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2015 that Endangered Species Act protection may be warranted for pond turtles, but the agency delayed protection.

Friday's listing comes in response to a Center lawsuit seeking timely status evaluations and protection decisions for 241 plant and animal species thought to be trending toward extinction, including the northwestern and southwestern pond turtles. The Center and several renowned scientists and herpetologists petitioned to protect the pond turtles in 2012.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Article Topic Follows: Wildlife

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