Feds propose protection for West Coast turtles in response to lawsuit | Courthouse News Service
Sunday, December 3, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds propose protection for West Coast turtles in response to lawsuit

The turtles are suffering from habitat loss brought on mostly by urban and agricultural development.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Friday to place northwestern and southwestern pond turtles under Endangered Species Act protection after the Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned to protect the pond turtles in 2012.

The turtles, which live throughout California, Washington and Oregon, will be designated as threatened species under the act.

The Endangered Species Act provides a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats both domestically and abroad. It was passed in 1973 to protect and recover species at risk of extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead federal agency responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act. 

The service determined in 2015 that Endangered Species Act protection may be warranted for pond turtles, but the agency delayed protection.

The protections are a response to a petition and lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity. According to a release by the center, the lawsuit seeks “timely status evaluations and protection decisions for 241 plant and animal species thought to be trending toward extinction, including the northwestern and southwestern pond turtle.”

“Endangered Species Act protections are a much-needed lifeline for our dwindling native West Coast turtles,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center, in a statement. “Pond turtles are crucial to healthy rivers and wetlands, and losing them would impoverish aquatic ecosystems.”

Despite its name, the pond turtle can be found in rivers and other bodies of water like creeks, marshes, irrigation ditches, or reservoirs. The southwestern pond turtle lives in Southern California from Monterey County southward into northern Baja California, Mexico. The northwestern pond turtle is found in the Central Valley and north of the Bay Area in California, as well as Washington and Oregon. 

The turtles frequently bask on logs, branches, and boulders on land or near water. They require terrestrial habitats for nesting and hibernation purposes.

In a statement announcing the protection, the Center for Biological Diversity says that the pond turtles are suffering from habitat loss and fragmentation brought on by urban and agricultural development. Construction of dams, invasive species, and climate change are also threats to the species’ long-term survival.

In the Willamette Valley in Oregon, pond turtle populations have declined by 99%. In the Central Valley of California, most of the turtles’ natural habitat is gone. Surveys conducted found turtles at only 15 of 55 sites, with sizable populations at only five sites, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

In Southern California there are few stable, reproducing populations known between Los Angeles and the Mexican border.

A respiratory disease epidemic in Washington in 1990 nearly wiped out the northwestern pond turtle. After the epidemic, there were fewer than 100 total pond turtles in the state. There have been reintroduction efforts since, but the turtles are nearly gone from Puget Sound and only two populations remain in the Columbia River Gorge.

At the state level, the pond turtles are listed as endangered in Washington; sensitive/critical in Oregon; and a “species of special concern” in California. Although habitat destruction is the biggest threat to the turtle, none of these states’ laws provided adequate habitat protection to the turtles.

Categories / Environment, Regional

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.