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Turtle town

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APPLEGATE — A tiny western pond turtle that fell for the elixir of a dog-food chum slick is unceremoniously pulled from Squaw Lake, the start of a reptilian version of an alien abduction.

Volunteers weigh, measure and age the rare 6-year-old juvenile turtle, pull its long tail to discern it’s a male, and then use a metal file to painlessly cut a small notch in one of its scutes that identify it as Pond Turtle No. 202.

He’s more than just a number to state wildlife biologist Jade Keehn. He represents the potential of this high-mountain lake as a rare haven for this species to carve out a niche in a landscape far too hostile for the Rogue Valley’s only native turtle.

“He’s a beautiful turtle,” Keehn says. “I hope to see him again.”

Turtle No. 202 is the latest in a new study that so far is showing great promise that this natural lake nestled high in the Siskiyou Mountains could be one of the last and best natural vestiges for western pond turtles, which have been fighting a losing battle for decades against natural and foreign invaders in western Oregon.

The smallish turtles with dinnerplate-like shells once numbered in the millions throughout the West, preferring marshes, ponds and even slow portions of rivers like the Rogue.

But dwindling wetland habitat and predation have taken their toll.

A 1991 Rogue Basin survey found western pond turtles in just 8.5 percent of their normal habitat. Biologists also are alarmed that the majority of populations are composed of turtles 20 years or older, with just a few immature ones in the mix.

The species was petitioned for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act but lost out because overall turtle numbers were deemed high enough that the species did not risk extinction in the near future.

But the relative absence of younger turtles in area populations have been alarming, leaving the these turtles categorized in Oregon as a sensitive species, meaning they cannot legally be kept or purposely killed.

They are also identified as an Oregon Conservation Strategies species, part of a far-reaching plan to help recover some of these native Oregonian critters not normally funded by fish and wildlife dollars.

At Upper Squaw Lake, the plight of the pond turtle is as obvious to Forest Service biologist Dave Clayton as are the potentials for a bright future.

As volunteers process the turtles caught in this second one-day annual turtle roundup, some of the pitfalls of the species rest just a few steps away.

Turtle egg shells litter a sandy lakeside shoal, showing that five recently dug nests have been raided by raccoons, foxes, black bears or other opportunists.

“Everything likes eggs,” Clayton says. “They’re just trying to make a living.”

But turtle No. 202 escaped that predation six years ago, and then had to swim for its life to escape non-native bullfrogs and eke out a living among non-native red-eared slider turtles, a bigger invasive species that out-competes these native for food and space.

But even evasive swimming techniques and finding good forage aren’t enough.

Turtles are cold-blooded, and they need key times in summer to soak up the sun’s rays, which warm them enough to improve movement and digestion.

“Pond turtles are reptiles, and they need to bask,” Clayton says. “They come up at 9 o’clock in the morning to get their first sun. But that’s when boats and paddleboards start going around here. They scare the turtles into the water, and they can’t warm up. Just another stressor.”

Despite myriad stressors, the western pond turtles in Squaw Lake appear to be the exception and not the rule.

This is the second year of a multi-agency effort among ODFW, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and Bureau of Land Management to survey current, random and historical habitats for western pond turtles. Squaw Lake has become the turtle-darling to date.

Last year crews captured 24 turtles and one juvenile, ODFW data show. Last month’s haul netted just 14 turtles, but three were juveniles.

“This a really good site,” says Keehn, ODFW’s conservation strategy biologist here. “We’re getting breeding and good recruitment.”

Moreover, no turtle has been captured both years at Squaw Lakes. That’s a big deal in the mark-and-recapture method for animal population estimates.

“Our quick, back-of-the envelope calculation suggests that there may be more like 300 or more animals in this area,” Keehn says.

Clayton, who grew up in the Applegate Valley, says he has reports of thousands of turtles in Squaw Lake at the start of the 20th century, “and I believe it.”

Two years is promising, but longer-term data sets are needed to draw more sound conclusions.

“It’ll be better when we do this for 10 years and really see an increase in younger age classes,” Clayton says.

At least the numbers already show Squaw Lake, and turtle No. 202, are worth a little investment.

Plans are to fence off the breeding grounds where the pilfered nests were found last week, in hopes of keeping predators at bay.

Lake visitors could help by steering clear of basking turtles, particularly in the morning as they jump-start their cold-blooded metabolisms, Clayton says.

But it’s still up to future turtles like No. 202 to run the bullfrog gauntlet and get big enough to keep the large-mouth predators at bay.

“I don’t know if we could ever completely remove bullfrogs from a water body like this,” Clayton says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Rarely seen Western pond turtles juveniles are captured during a survey a Squaw Lakes.