What Can Nevada’s Turtles Tell Us About The Environment?

Sep 21, 2017

The Western Pond Turtle has been a part of the Carson Valley since at least the 1860s. Yet, scientists know very little about the population in Nevada—and what it can tell us about overall ecosystem health.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick recently went out on a turtle expedition near Carson City to see what’s being done.

Jason Jones hikes through bushwhacked reeds and brush at the River Fork Ranch near Genoa. His day job is studying reptiles and amphibians, as a herpetologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

“So I think one of our traps is right there,” he says walking down an embankment to a small pond.

Jason Jones (right) leads Mark Enders (left) into a pond to check on a turtle trap, baited the previous night.
Credit Noah Glick

He’s leading a team of scientists and volunteers collecting information on the Western Pond Turtle, one of the few turtle species living in the American West.

The first step is checking the more than two dozen traps scattered among several ponds across the property.

“Here’s a turtle,” Jones says.

“We got one turtle in this trap,” echoes Mark Enders, a state biologist and co-lead for the project. Once the team catches a turtle, they collect notes and take photographs.

“Alright so carapace color: dark olive with tan streaking,” Enders says, adding, “Plastron color is brownish-yellow with large yellow spots.”

Mark Enders shows the two notches he made into this turtle's shell: one notch on the first margin on the left and another on the seventh margin on the right.
Credit Noah Glick

Enders then files two small notches on the shell: one on the first margin of the left side, and another on the seventh margin of the right side to indicate 17, the year this turtle was captured.

“It’s going to sound pretty painful to the listeners, but it’s really not,” he says. “Kind of like filing a fingernail away a little bit.”

Then, it’s off to the next trap to do it all over again.

The project began last year as a collaboration between NDOW and The Nature Conservancy, a national non-profit that works on habitat restoration , and which owns the River Fork Ranch.

One of the main goals of the study is to gather baseline information on the turtles living in Nevada, which up to this point, really haven’t been studied. Jones says pond turtles serve as a good measuring stick of wetland health, because they use rivers, ponds and land.

“These are really long-lived species. People have documented them in other systems for 40-plus years. I think the longest-lived turtles we know is 50 years,” he says. “Not only can they be good indicators of ecosystem health, but when we mark them, we hope to find them years and years from now.”

The Western Pond Turtle’s range spans the West Coast from British Columbia to Baja, California. In about 80 percent of that range, populations are declining. Currently it’s listed as vulnerable, one step below endangered.

(left to right): Jason Jones with NDOW, Duane Petit with The Nature Conservancy and volunteer Art Hall.
Credit Noah Glick

Jones says that’s one reason why scientists hope to determine whether this species is originally from Nevada.

“One thing we really hope to do with this project is get genetic samples where we can determine whether or not these turtles are actually native,” he says, “which would obviously warrant some conservation efforts or at least increase studies.”

That’s where NDOW’s Wildlife Veterinarian Peregrine Wolff comes in.

State veterinarian Peregrine Wolff mentors Lance Murray, an aide with NDOW. They're collecting blood samples for genetic testing.
Credit Noah Glick

“He’s not bleeding so you can let go of his head,” she says to an NDOW trainee taking blood samples. “OK, so that should be good. That’s plenty for genetics.”

She’s working with the team to collect blood samples of all turtles captured during this study.

“We are collecting a blood sample and then we are keeping it in an anti-coagulant so that they can look at the red blood cells in reptiles,” she says, “and so they can determine the relatedness of these different turtle populations.”

She says they’re also able to test for different types of disease, in case they need to compare data with other populations across the West.

But the project has implications beyond turtles. Duane Petite is with The Nature Conservancy. He says the more scientists know about the health of the ecosystem, the more that can benefit local ranchers and farmers.

“It seems like all of life is interconnected somehow,” he says, “and so when we’re working to improve the health of some wildlife species, we’re actually working to help improve the health of humans as well.”

Mark Enders handles a Western Pond Turtle. He says scientists use plastic bags and disinfect all tools to avoid spreading disease among water systems.
Credit Noah Glick

The team has been collecting turtles from the Carson, Walker and Truckee River systems, and last year outfitted several with radio transmitters last year to track movement and determine their home range.

Scientists plan to set more traps along the Truckee River this month, and hope to monitor changes in seasons and water flows.

While other Western states have been studying the Western Pond Turtle for decades, Nevada is now its second year. And scientists are eager to catch up.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that The Nature Conservancy owns the River Fork Ranch property. An earlier version reported that the organization owned the conservation easement. Also, this story has been updated to report that the radio transmitters were used last year.