Nearly 50 Western pond turtles are being released this week as part of a conservation effort that has raised the population of the state-endangered species from 150 to 1,500 in the past two decades.

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In a small room at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo live bucketfuls of turtles.

And they’re not your common painted turtles or red-eared sliders — these are western pond turtles, which two decades ago had nearly disappeared from the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the approximately 75 turtles that have been living in a zoo backroom would have made up half of Washington’s western pond turtle population in 1990.

But the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, in its 20th year, has increased the population of the state-endangered species from 150 to 1,500.

The latest group, 46 turtles in all, are being released this week in Mason County and Lakewood after spending the past nine months feasting on mealworms and mice purée at the zoo. Bill McDowell and other zookeepers have fed them gourmet cuisine so the turtles could pack about three years of growth into the past nine months.

In the wild, after western pond turtles hatch in late summer or early fall, they “overwinter,” essentially becoming dormant and ceasing growth.

When they emerge in the spring they are not much bigger than when they first hatched, and are dangerously susceptible to predators.

The ponds and wetlands that are home to the turtles are full of invasive species that prey on them, like bullfrogs, said David Shepherdson, a conservation biologist at the Oregon Zoo, also a partner in the project.

Biologists and zoo interns try to thin the bullfrog population with late-night hunting trips, Shepherdson said.

“You’re out with a flashlight and you put your waders on and you slip and slide around the water,” Shepherdson said. “And when you see a bullfrog, you spike it.”

Western pond turtles once were considered common along the West Coast, then they lost their habitats as wetlands were drained and development encroached, said Frank Slavens, the Woodland Park Zoo’s former reptile curator, who started the western pond turtle recovery program in 1991. The appearance of the invasive species like bullfrogs, carp and largemouth and smallmouth bass compounded the problem.

The recovery plan for the turtles aims to establish seven sites in Washington with at least 200 turtles each, but currently there are only three sites.

Another batch of turtles raised at the Oregon Zoo will be released on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge on Aug. 9, Shepherdson said. That site is the only one of the three that has 200 turtles, said Michelle Tirhi, a district biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, another program partner.

“So we’ve got a long way to go,” she said. Nonetheless, Tirhi said it’s one of the department’s most successful recovery programs.

“It’s tremendously successful. Going from 150 to 1,500 is a tremendous success story.”

Jessie Van Berkel: 206-464-3192 or