Recognizing California’s Heroes in a Half-Shell: Our Resident Turtles and Tortoises

Loggerhead Turtle
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

California -( May 23 is World Turtle Day, created to celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises and their disappearing habitats around the world.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) takes this opportunity to remind people that all our native wildlife have their own intrinsic value, even the species that seldom make headlines.

“Oftentimes reptiles like turtles and tortoises don’t get as much attention in the media as their furry and feathery counterparts do, but aside from their intrinsic value, they play a critical role in ecosystem health by their position in the food web,” said Laura Patterson, CDFW statewide coordinator for amphibian and reptile conservation.

Pond turtles, for example, eat aquatic invertebrates and vegetation. In turn, they and their eggs are eaten by raccoons, coyotes and skunks. Hatchlings are eaten by bullfrogs, largemouth bass and large birds such as herons and egrets. A lucky pond turtle can live 70 years in the wild.

The western pond turtle, a Species of Special Concern found primarily west of Sierra-Cascade crest, is California’s only native freshwater turtle species. Once widespread in California, Oregon and Washington, they are now especially uncommon in Southern California due to habitat loss resulting from development and water diversion for urban and agricultural uses.Their populations have also been decimated by invasive, non-native predators like bullfrogs and largemouth bass that devour the tiny hatchling turtles. The introduction of non-native, aggressive “dime store turtles” such as red-eared sliders may also contribute to the western pond turtles’ decline because they occupy similar ecological niches, but the red-eared sliders get much bigger and produce many more offspring, making them superior competitors for limited habitat and food resources.

Many non-native species of turtles are imported and sold as pets when they are very small. When they grow larger, they require a lot more space, they can lose their attractive coloration, and they can become aggressive, leading some people to set them free, assuming they will be fine in the wild. Many die, but enough survive to establish wild populations here that now compete with our native pond turtles.

For that reason, if you have a fishing license, there is no bag or possession limit for the legal take of any subspecies of pond slider (red-eared, yellow-bellied and Cumberland sliders), painted or spiny soft-shelled turtles, all of which are non-native.

Most western pond turtles travel a long distance (546 yards) to upland habitat to lay eggs and even farther sometimes to overwinter. 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 phone calls 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. People must understand that these turtles do travel away from water during a portion of their life cycle and should be left alone.

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 in the law. That includes western pond turtles and desert tortoises. (California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 40)

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), California’s only native tortoise, is listed as threatened under both state and federal Endangered Species Acts. It is the California state reptile. As with most endangered species, habitat loss and degradation has led to their decline. In addition, desert tortoise populations have been severely impacted by Upper Respiratory Disease Syndrome, which is contracted through contact with people.

The best thing you can do to help conserve our desert tortoises is leave them alone, unless you see one trying to cross a road. In that case, you can help by gently moving it to the side of the road in the direction it was going. As with our native pond turtles, don’t ever remove a tortoise from the wild, and never release one that has been a “pet” into the wild. It also helps to dispose of all trash in appropriate receptacles because if left lying around, it attracts animals that eat small tortoises and turtles. A desert tortoise can live to 150 years.

There are also four species of sea turtle that spend at least part of each year in our waters: Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), Olive (Pacific) Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), and the Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). They are all listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. In October 2012, the leatherback was designated the official state marine reptile and given its own special day last October 15.

Last year CDFW biologists worked with U.S. Geological Survey, the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Association of Governments to reintroduce western pond turtles to Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve.

About the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Mission of the Department of Fish and Wildlife is to manage California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.

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Eric Mills

If the California DFW were TRULY concerned about the well-being of the Western Pond Turtle (our only native freshwater species), then they would stop issuing import permits for non-native turtles for the live animal food markets (mostly in various “Chinatowns” in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, et al.). Most of these animals are taken from the wild in states East of the Rockies, possibly as many as 300,000 per year, depleting local populations. Many are purchased and illegally released into local waters (often by religious sects in “animal liberation” ceremonies), where they prey upon and displace our… Read more »