Saving Native Turtles One Gallon at a Time

A juvenile western pond turtle in the Santa Monica Mountains

On the morning of Sept. 4, more than two dozen volunteers with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCD) and 20 hoses stood at the ready. They were there to manually fill small vernal pools with water, which native western pond turtles need to survive and reproduce.   

With so little rain this year, pools in creeks across the Santa Monica Mountains were going dry and the RCD decided it was time to help the turtles. Volunteers carried 20 hoses—100 feet in length—up a steep 200-foot ravine to deliver water to fill up one pool in particular that supports a number of native western pond turtles.

“I’m amazed that so many people volunteered to help with this project,” said Rosi Dagit, RCD senior conservation biologist, in a phone interview. “What was really wonderful is that they’re doing it in a time of so many bad things happening. I think people want to do something tangible and positive.”

It was a real joint effort: Manzanita School/Cali Camp donated water and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy provided extra hoses. Engineering firefighter volunteers ensured water pressure was sufficient to climb the steep hill, and also repaired hoses that blew out from the pressure. A United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist dechlorinated and aerated the water before allowing it into the pools. 

It took all day to deliver over 2,000 gallons of water to help save the native turtles, but it paid off—five hatchlings and several juveniles and small adults immediately jumped into the pool.

After seeing the success of this effort first-hand, the RCD is now seeking $11,000 to purchase additional materials (like pipes, valves, gages and water) to set up a permanent water delivery system for future droughts.  They hope to build the system in February 2022.

The western pond turtle is the only native turtle species occurring in the Santa Monica Mountains. They can sometimes be spotted while sunning on a rock or log, but dive into the water if disturbed. The turtles can be found in ponds, creeks, marshes and irrigation ditches with vegetation and prefer pools with logs, rocks or exposed banks for basking.

Western pond turtles are only four to nine inches long, vary in color from brown to olive to blackish; and live 30-40 years. Adult turtles eat aquatic plants, invertebrates, frog and salamander eggs, crayfish and tadpoles. 

They like to wander and “aestivate” (hibernate) under chaparral during the summer. In the Santa Monica Mountains, mating occurs in April and May.

Western pond turtle populations have suffered significant declines locally due to “poaching for private collections, increased predation by dogs and cats, habitat loss due to development”—especially overzealous fuel modification—” and road kill,” according to Dagit. “We lost over 50 individuals (out of a tagged population of 350 individuals) from 2012 to 2015.” 

Wildfires have also taken a toll. The Woolsey Fire caused turtle ponds in both Trancas and Zuma canyons to fill up with sedimentation and the total of eight turtles that used to live in those ponds are now gone.

The turtles are currently listed as a California species of special concern by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, but a petition is under review by USFWS to list the southern populations as endangered.

In 1986, the Southwest Herpetological Society documented turtles in 30 locations throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. The latest comprehensive study by the RCD in 2009 found western pond turtles remaining in only eight of those locations, and just three locations had more than five individuals. 

Last month wasn’t the first time heroic action was taken to help the turtles; in 2014, volunteers hand-carried water to fill up natural turtle ponds that were drying up. By 2015, the ponds were so dried up that refilling them was impractical. Volunteers rounded up 48 of the turtles and took them to a protected “sanctuary pool” temporarily until they could be returned to the wild.

In inspecting the collected turtles, many of the adults had shells damaged by run-ins with coyotes, raccoons, ravens and dogs, to list just a few of their predators. Several were handicapped with missing limbs gnawed off by predators and had to be rehomed to the Santa Barbara Zoo.

“Tackling the effects of climate change one turtle pond at a time is daunting,” Dagit wrote in a newsletter for the RCD. “For now, we have managed to buy some time with our efforts to support the turtles … but if the ongoing drought reduces the number of females laying eggs and the number of hatchlings surviving their first year, we’re faced with few good solutions other than keeping them in captivity.” 

Tax deductible donations for a water delivery system can be sent to the donation link or mailed to RCD of the Santa Monica Mountains, 540 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290.