Stone: Making a difference, one turtle at a time

Vince Ready/Lasting Light Photography##A young western pond turtle about to be released at the Turtle Haven preserve.
Vince Ready/Lasting Light Photography##A young western pond turtle about to be released at the Turtle Haven preserve.
Hova Najarian/Oregon Zoo##Natasha Stone releases a western pond turtle at Turtle Haven.
Hova Najarian/Oregon Zoo##Natasha Stone releases a western pond turtle at Turtle Haven.

Around this time last year, I was sitting at my desk at Oregon Public Broadcasting, where I worked as a production assistant for the radio talk show Think Out Loud. A colleague asked if anyone would be interested in covering a story about a small group of endangered, zoo-raised turtles being released back into the wild, and without hesitation, I said, “Yes!”

I didn’t know it then but that simple “yes” would change my life.

The story concerned a local conservation group, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and its successful partnership with the Oregon Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies. They had joined together to save the last one of two native freshwater turtle species left on the West Coast, the western pond turtle.

A year later, picture this:

I am no longer at OPB, but instead working for Friends. In fact, I actually participated in our latest turtle release, an exciting turn of events from someone who could only live vicariously through those involved in the 2019 event. And instead of covering the event remotely from a home office, I am at Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust’s 65-acre Turtle Haven preserve on the Washington side of the Gorge.

This is one of only six places in Washington with a known population of the endangered western pond turtle. The land trust team, led by Stewardship Coordinator Sara Woods, custom-designed this year’s event to promote a COVID-safe release.

Guest Writer

Natasha Stone is the community engagement specialist for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. She manages outdoor youth education efforts and works to build a diverse and inclusive network of community partners to help protect, preserve, and steward the Gorge. Before joining Friends, Natasha worked at Oregon Public Broadcasting as a production assistant for the Think Out Loud program. An Oregon native, she lives in North Plains, near the family farm where she was raised.

Turtle Haven consists of thick forest shrouding two large ponds. These ponds have exactly the right mix of shade and sun for basking, the perfect habitat for a freshwater turtle.

The ponds look unspoiled, with tiny green, flower-like lily pads painted on the surface and long logs lying across, perfect for sun-basking turtles. I can sense the landscape’s sensitivity and, at the same time, its resiliency.

I am one of 10 people standing in a circle in the shade of a tall, willow-like tree, masked and physically distanced due to the pandemic. In the circle is a white cooler holding 23 western pond turtles hatched nine months earlier.

The turtles were collected from the wild. They matured to the point of release in the Oregon Zoo’s conservation lab.

Staring at that plastic cooler, full of storage containers sheltering slow-crawling baby turtles, feels strange. I can’t help but think how unfortunate it is to come to the point that such extensive measures are required to save a species — but also how grateful I am something was done before it was too late.

What many forget is when we lose a species, we lose much more than a physical presence. An entire ecosystem is disrupted.

Turtles act as filters for our rivers and streams, as they feed off dead material and serve as food in turn, for others higher up the food chain. For some Indigenous people, in North America and around the world, turtles hold symbolic significance in creation and cultural beliefs.

Turtles have survived on this planet for millions of years. Some species actually co-existed with both humans and dinosaurs.

Although slow of foot, turtles’ ability to adapt and survive is incredible. However, in the Gorge and elsewhere, invasive species such as the bullfrog disrupt the life cycle of native species like the western pond turtle.

Even though they’ve survived natural cataclysms such as the Ice Age floods, the turtles can’t compete with something that lays 21,000 eggs at a time, as bullfrogs do. A series of other factors have impacted western pond populations, including habitat loss from development.

While sitting alongside the largest pond at Turtle Haven, I feel the warmth of the sun’s rays shining through the forest canopy and absorb the sound of a nearby stream as long as I can. Like many, I feel my calmest and most whole when in the outdoors.

Being raised in a farming family, I was fortunate enough to play in the same fields of strawberries and wheat my mother played in as a child and my grandmother planted as a young woman. Being connected to land, forming a relationship with it throughout my life, gave me a deep respect for it and the many inhabitants with whom I share it, because I understand what would be lost if it no longer existed.

Turtle Haven is one of those places. I can’t imagine it being changed or developed because of how much it provides for so many species.

Personally taking part in the turtle release, I see first hand how much life Turtle Haven hosts and how crucial this habitat is for its survival.

Holding the small turtles, maybe the size of a sand dollar, I can’t help but want to stare at them longer before sending them off in the pond. They’re such small but strong critters, outlined with thick armor that crinkles like an alligator’s skin.

Now, I look the last one in the eye, wishing it the fullest life. Slowly, I put my hand in the water to let the turtle slip into the pond it will call home for its expected 50- to 60-year life span.

As the young one swims away, I feel an immense wave of joy and gratitude, knowing the turtles’ home would be protected and preserved for their lifetime — and for generations after.


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