The Cedar Creek Turtles Return!

Written by Marissa Scoville, SPP Ecological Coordinator

A Western Pond Turtle being handled by an incarcerated technician. Photo by SPP Staff.

After a long hiatus Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) and the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) were happy to welcome back the Western Pond Turtle (WPT). The WPT program has been active since 2013, but due to Covid-19 SPP had to take a two-year break from the program. With the return of the program SPP has begun working with a team of incarcerated technicians to provide care to these turtles by helping them recover from illness so they can return to their native ponds and help the population grow.

WDFW biologist handling a Western Pond Turtle. Photo by SPP Staff.

The WPT are a Washington state listed endangered species. Biologists from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) trap the turtles and examine them for signs of shell disease. Shell disease is caused by a keratin eating fungus that infects the WPTs and creates lesions on their shells, left untreated it can be fatal. Turtles that are show symptoms of shell disease are then brought to PAWS Wildlife and Rehabilitation Center (PAWS) for treatment. This year all the turtles that received treatment were from Peirce County. After treatment the turtles have a long road to recovery, and this is where the technicians at Cedar Creek come in to play.

Veterinarian from PAWS teaching technician, Jason Matson, how to examine shell disease lesions on a Western Pond Turtle. Photo by SPP Staff.

At Cedar Creek, the turtles are kept in a small building lovingly dubbed by both staff and technicians alike, “The Turtle Shack”, which was renovated this year to house the turtles. Due to the two-year break in the WPT program and the new Turtle Shack, there was a lot of work to set up before the turtles could arrive! But supplies were quickly gathered, and the tanks and lights were set up as well, and pretty soon The Turtle Shack was ready to house the WPTs. On March 9th, 2022, the eight WPTs were transferred down from the PAWS facility to Cedar Creek by WDFW biologist Emily Butler.

WDFW biologist showing technician, Jason Matson, how to check the WDFW number on a Western Pond Turtle. Photo by SPP Staff.

Turtle technician, Heath McQueen, examining a Western Pond Turtle when the turtles were first brought to Cedar Creek. Photo by SPP Staff.

Once the turtles arrive at Cedar Creek, the technicians work hard to care for this endangered species. The technicians prepared and fed the turtles a varied diet of smelt, mealworms, night crawlers, turtle pellets, mixed greens, and reptile gel. They also provided daily water changes and weekly tank cleanings to prevent possible infections in the turtles’ post-treatment wounds. With daily behavior observations the technicians quickly learned the personality each turtle had, some were shy and preferred to hide all day while others were bold and sassy, preferring to bask all day and would occasionally attempt to pick a fight with their tank mate. It is important to note aggressive turtles were separated in their tanks with Plexi glass to prevent potential injury (this would not stop them from endlessly hissing at each other though). Physical observations were also regularly made to ensure treated lesions were healing or if new lesions developed. These observations helped the technicians notice if a turtle acting differently and may need medical attention, thankfully no extra medical attention was required for this round of turtles. In what felt like minutes, the turtles were rehabilitated and ready for release.

Weekly photos of the carapace (top shell, image on left) and plastron (bottom shell, image on right) were taken weekly to track the healing process and reference in case of new suspected lesions. Photo by SPP Staff.

On May 5th, 2022, the turtles were transported to the Pierce County release site, where their native ponds are located. Here a small staff made up of SPP and WDFW members checked all the turtles prior to release. Unfortunately, the technicians were unable to join this year’s release. The pre-release checks consisted of weight and size measurements, Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT) scans and verifying each turtle’s WDFW number. After this the turtles were brought down to the ponds. At the Pierce County site each of the turtles were released back into the same pond which they were trapped in many months ago. Each of the staff took turns releasing the eight WPTs into their native ponds. The turtles swam away and rejoined their population just in time for the summer and the WPT mating season. SPP and the Cedar Creek crew are very happy to see the successful release of the WPTs but will be missing the turtles until the next batch of are trapped for treatment.

Western Pond Turtle released into Pond at Peirce County Peirce County site. Photo by Danielle Jimenez, Communications Consultant from Washington Department of Corrections.

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