They moved slowly.
But that didn’t mean they weren’t excited. They are turtles, after all.
One by one, 35 of them waded through the mud into a pond in Lakewood on Friday to start their new lives in the wild.
The turtles, raised during a historic heat wave and a pandemic, were the latest batch to emerge from a desperate recovery program launched by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Woodland Park Zoo to help bring western pond turtles back from the brink of extinction in the state.
Ecologists had plenty of reasons for concern when they discovered in 1990 that the state’s western pond turtle population was dwindling due to predators, loss of habitat and invasive species.
There were only 150 left in Washington that year. In the 30 years since the program began, more than 2,300 turtles have been reintroduced to the wild after being hatched in captivity.
Approximately 800 to 1,000 of the released turtles have survived and continue to thrive at six sites, according to state officials.
Western pond turtles are a point of pride for preservationists in the state. While present in other states, they are one of only two turtle species native to Washington. They also serve an important role in the delicate ecological balance of the wetlands they live in.
They’ll eat anything — carrion, invertebrates, plant matter — which helps keep ponds clean.
“They’re the garbage men of the pond,” said Kevin Murphy, a curator at the Woodland Park Zoo. “Their impact may not be obvious, but taking them out of an ecosystem does have a fairly intensive impact.”
Saving western pond turtles from disappearing is an intricate process. A team uses radio transmitters to track the movement of female turtles almost hourly during nesting season, from May to July.
Once the turtles lay eggs, the team has to find the nests buried in the mud to bring to Woodland Park Zoo to be cared for. The hatchlings are fed through the winter, when they’d normally hibernate, growing large enough to escape the mouths of predators when they are released several months later to protected wetlands.
By the summer, officials say the turtles are nearly as big as 3-year-old turtles that grew up in the wild.
The pandemic complicated efforts, as the preservation team wasn’t able to bring in as many volunteers to help with tracking, and had to work around COVID-19 protocols at the zoo.
“It was kind of just adapting to a new normal,” said Emily Butler, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We were able to luckily get out and do our work.”
The turtles had to weather extreme heat this summer too. When temperatures skyrocketed in June, the team nervously monitored water temperatures in the turtles’ outdoor tubs. Luckily, it cooled enough in the evenings for them to survive, Murphy said.
It was hot once again Friday morning, with excessive heat warnings in place for much of Western Washington, when the turtles finally set off for their new home.
The heat didn’t stop a crowd of wildlife workers and officials from coming out to celebrate the milestone.
There will be more challenges to deal with in the future. Climate change is a pressing concern and higher temperatures will lower water levels and heat up turtle habitats, Murphy said.
Environmental changes could also bring in new plants and diseases harmful to the species. Butler said the team is still trying to understand a new, fungi-related disease they discovered several years ago that causes shell lesions.
“Our environment is changing,” Butler said. “So we really need to be proactive, watching, and be able to adapt and help them where we can.”
Nevertheless, Friday was a cause for celebration. Butler is optimistic there will be more successes — a few turtles at a time.
“Things are slow with turtles,” Butler said. “But consistency, and things pay off.”