FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 29, 2023
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes federal protections for both species of western pond turtle under the Endangered Species Act
Ventura, California - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced a proposal to list both species of western pond turtle, the northwestern pond turtle and the southwestern pond turtle, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Service is also proposing a 4(d) rule, that would support conservation of both species. The northwestern pond turtle occurs in Washington, Oregon, Nevada and throughout much of northern and central California. The southwestern pond turtle occurs in southern California from Monterey County south to Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties into northern Baja California, Mexico. The turtles use rivers, lakes, ponds, streams other water sources and terrestrial habitats throughout their lives.
Ongoing threats to both species include worsening drought conditions, habitat loss and fragmentation, and predation bysuch as non-native bullfrogs.
“Food, water and shelter for northwestern pond turtles and southwestern pond turtles are becoming scarce across the western United States,” said Paul Souza, director of the Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “We are working alongside federal and state agencies and private landowners to implement conservation actions for northwestern and southwestern pond turtles, and we need everyone’s support to help them thrive in the wild.”
The Service reviewed the best available science to evaluate the status of both species by preparing a Species Status Assessment, including information provided by species experts.
The assessment found that although the southwestern pond turtle and northwestern pond turtle are likely to sustain populations in the wild in the near term, both species have increasing risk of extinction due to population losses, decreased genetic diversity, and a reduced ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions in the next half century, thus warranting listing as threatened under the ESA.
The Service is also proposing a 4(d) rule that allows activities that support conservation of both species, including wildfire suppression and management, maintenance of existing livestock ponds, habitat restoration, and non-native species removal. The 4(d) rule would allow land managers and others to carry out these activities without the risk of violating the Endangered Species Act on their properties because they are expected to have beneficial or negligible impacts to pond turtles and their habitat.
Ongoing conservation efforts continue to support populations of southwestern pond turtle and northwestern pond turtle in the wild. These include development of a range-wide management strategy by federal, state, and private partners to guide efforts to enhance, protect and restore pond turtle habitat; collaboration with military installations to formalize management recommendations on thousands of acres of military land; and development of habitat conservation plans that provide landowners opportunities to assist in conserving the species and their habitats. For example, the state of Washington implemented habitat management and predator control measures while raising northwestern pond turtles in captivity for release into the wild to help boost populations.
Today’s announcement comes as the Department of the Interior celebrates the 50th anniversary of the ESA. The ESA has been highly effective and credited with saving 99% of listed species from extinction. Thus far, more than 100 species of plants and animals have been delisted based on recovery or reclassified from endangered to threatened based on improved conservation status, and hundreds more species are stable or improving thanks to the collaborative actions of Tribes, federal agencies, state and local governments, conservation organizations and private citizens.
The Service will seek public comment on this proposal. The documents will publish in the Federal Register on October 3, 2023 opening a 60-day public comment period. The Service will consider comments from all interested parties received by December 4, 2023. The proposal and information on how to submit comments can be found on or after October 3, 2023 at www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS-R8-ES-2023-0092.
Frequently Asked Questions
What action is the Service taking?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing federal protections for both species of western pond turtle under the Endangered Species Act. The Service is proposing to list both the southwestern pond turtle and northwestern pond turtle as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. After reviewing the status of these turtles, the Service determined that they warrant listing and are at risk of becoming endangered. The proposed listing is accompanied by a proposed 4(d) rule, which supports activities that incentivize conservation of both species.
Where do these turtles live?
The northwestern pond turtle occurs in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and northern California south along the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Coast Range down to Monterey and Kern Counties. The southwestern pond turtle occurs in southern California from Monterey County south to Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego Counties into northern Baja California, Mexico. The turtles use rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, other water sources as well as terrestrial habitats throughout their lives.
What do they look like?
They are medium sized turtles and although variable, most appear olive to dark brown, or blackish in color with occasional skin patterning made up of a network of spots, lines, or dashes of brown or black. They range from Puget Sound, Washington, in the north to northwestern Baja California, Mexico, in the south. There are also disjunct populations in far Western Nevada. They require both aquatic and upland habitat throughout their life cycle. Although maximum lifespan is unknown, some can live to be over 55 years old in the wild. Reproductive adults, especially females, are critical for population stability.
Why is the Service proposing a threatened listing for the southwestern pond turtle and northwestern pond turtle?
The Service reviewed the best available science by preparing a species status assessment to evaluate the condition of both species. The Service sought input from species experts, scientists, researchers, Tribes and other land managers to prepare the assessment.
The assessment found that although the southwestern and northwestern pond turtle is likely to sustain populations in the wild in the near term, the species has increasing risk of extinction due to population losses, decreased genetic diversity, and a reduced ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions in the next half century, thus warranting listing as threatened under the ESA.
What are the threats to the turtle?
The greatest ongoing threats to these turtles in the Western U.S. are worsening drought conditions, habitat loss and fragmentation, and predation by invasive species, primarily non-native bullfrogs.
How will ESA protections benefit the species’?
Listing under the ESA provides immediate protection, promotes recovery, and generates greater public awareness about the threats and conservation opportunities. It also inspires actions by diverse partners, including federal, state, Tribal and local agencies, industry, conservation groups, and individuals.
Targeted protections: Under the ESA, federal agencies are required to utilize their authorities to conserve threatened and endangered species and must ensure actions they approve, fund or carry out do not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat. In addition, the ESA protects listed species and their habitats by prohibiting “take” and interstate or international trade in listed species (including their parts and products), except under federal permit. Take is defined by the ESA as, “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Harm is defined as, “an act which actually kills or injures wildlife.” Such an act may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering.
Recovery efforts: The ESA also requires the Service to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation of threatened and endangered species. Recovery plans outline actions that are needed to improve the species’ status so they no longer require protection under the ESA. The Service develops and implements these plans in partnership with species experts, federal, state and local agencies, Tribes, non-governmental organizations, academia, and other stakeholders.
What conservation efforts are currently underway for western pond turtles?
Ongoing conservation efforts continue to support populations of southwestern pond turtle and northwestern pond turtle in the wild. These include development of a range-wide management strategy by federal, state, and private partners to guide efforts to enhance, protect and restore pond turtle habitat, collaboration with military installations to formalize management recommendations on thousands of acres of military land, and development of habitat conservation plans that provide landowners opportunities to assist in conserving the species and their habitat. The state of Washington has also implemented habitat management and predator control measures while raising individuals in captivity that are released into the wild to help boost populations.
In 2021, the Western Pond Turtle Rangewide Conservation Coalition, a team of federal, state and private partners across four western U.S. states and Mexico, developed a range-wide management strategy to help guide efforts to enhance, protect and restore habitat that is vital for western pond turtles in the future. Strategy recommendations include coordinated surveys, identification of priority conservation areas, threats management, outreach and education, and targeted research for recovery. The Service also worked with the Department of Defense to formalize recommended best management practices for pond turtles on thousands of acres of military installations that they own and manage across the West Coast. These practices include, identifying and protecting nests during the breeding season, adding basking sites such as trees or logs, removing barriers such as fencing between ponds, streams and nesting habitats to allow for migration, and removing invasive predators such as bullfrogs, snapping turtles and non-native game fish.
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife in collaboration with the Oregon Native Turtle Working Group and other partners developed Guidance for Oregon Native Turtles, Including Best Management Practices for land managers. Conservation efforts are outlined in the Oregon Conservation Strategy.
Continued conservation efforts (raising individuals in captivity and releasing to wild, or “headstarting,” habitat management, and predator control) in the State of Washington by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife through the implementation of their recovery plan for the northwestern pond turtle are significantly assisting in maintaining populations in the wild.
Currently there are 10 habitat conservation plans in the range of the northwestern pond turtle and 10 habitat conservation plans in the range of the southwestern pond turtle that conserve the species or its habitat.
What is the 4(d) rule that is being proposed and what does it mean for how I manage my land?
The proposed 4(d) rule would provide for southwestern and northwestern pond turtle conservation by allowing exceptions that incentivize conservation actions for the species including wildfire suppression and management, maintenance of existing livestock ponds, habitat restoration and non-native species removal. This 4(d) rule would allow land managers and others to carry out these activities without the risk of violating the Endangered Species Act on their properties because they are expected to have beneficial or negligible impacts to the southwestern pond turtle and northwestern pond turtle and its habitat. If you are an angler, rancher, property owner, or other entity implementing these activities on your lands, you are exempted from violating the Endangered Species Act should take occur.
What are the authorizations for the use of parts or animals for cultural use by Native American Tribes?
Use of southwestern and northwestern pond turtle parts for cultural significance or use is not currently covered by the proposed 4(d) rule. We are seeking additional information on uses in this context and intend to work with Tribes to ensure ceremonial activity is unaffected. The Service is committed to supporting Tribes’ cultural use of parts or animals for ceremonial or religious purposes.
How will commercial and recreational fishing be affected?
Because fishing is not among the main threats to pond turtles, this proposed listing would not place any restrictions or limitations on commercial or recreational fishing. If you accidentally catch a southwestern pond turtle or northwestern pond turtle, return it safely to the water.
How will water use be affected?
These turtles use a variety of water sources including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, ponds, creeks, and irrigation canals. Worsening drought conditions threaten both species and may impact water availability for the turtles. This proposal has no impact to water use at this time. Should the Service proceed with a final rule to list the southwestern pond turtle or northwestern pond turtle under the ESA in the future, the Service would work with other federal agencies and land managers to promote conservation efforts while implementing important water-related projects through the ESA consultation process and development of voluntary habitat conservation plans. The proposed rule also includes a 4(d) rule that would allow ranchers to be exempted from potential ESA violations for implementing routine activities associated with management and maintenance of livestock ponds by ranchers.
What should I do if I see a turtle crossing the road?
Southwestern pond turtles and northwestern pond turtles use both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and terrestrial habitat is important for nesting, overwintering, and dispersal. If you see a turtle crossing the road, it is probably going somewhere! Although it might seem like it would be helpful to move the turtle to a pond or stream, it left its aquatic habitat for a reason, and it is best to let it continue to cross the road.
If you must move a turtle to prevent it from being hit: quietly approach it, carefully pick it up using both hands and hold it upright in its normal walking position with its head pointing away from you and carry it across the road in the same direction it was heading. Turtles can bite or scratch and may carry diseases transmissible to humans.
What if I accidentally hit a pond turtle with my car when they are traveling across the road?
If possible, transport it immediately to the nearest state licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility. Contact information for state licensed wildlife rehabilitation facilities can be found at:
Is critical habitat being proposed? If so, when, and what does this mean for my land?
The Service determined that designation of critical habitat for the southwestern pond turtle and northwestern pond turtle may be prudent but is not determinable at this time. In addition to seeking sufficient information to perform the required analyses for proposing critical habitat, the Service is also seeking comment on whether designation of critical habitat would contribute to further declines of the species by providing information on the turtles’ locations, making them vulnerable to disturbance, loss, or other forms of take under the ESA.
I’m a land manager. How can I help southwestern and northwestern pond turtles on my property?
Best management practices for land managers to help both species include identifying and protecting nests during the breeding season, adding basking sites such as trees or logs, removing barriers such as fencing between ponds, streams and nesting habitats to allow for migration, and removing invasive predators such as bullfrogs, snapping turtles and non-native game fish.
What do I do if I suspect someone is illegally removing these turtles or any other species from the wild?
If you suspect someone is illegally removing live turtles, or any other species, please call the Service’s wildlife trafficking tips line at 1-844-FWS-TIPS (397-8477) or email email@example.com. You might be eligible for a financial reward if your tip helps solve a case. NWR Law Enforcement has more information on how to report wildlife crime.
How can I comment on this proposal?
The proposal and information on how to submit comments can be found on www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS-R8-ES-2023-0092. The Service will consider comments from all interested parties received by December 4, 2023.
(1) Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal:
https://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS-R8-ES-2023-0092, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then, click on the Search button. On the resulting page, in the panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, check the Proposed Rule box to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment.”
(2) By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R8-ES-2023-0092, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: PRB/3W, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.
We request that you send comments only by the methods described above. We will post all comments on https://www.regulations.gov. This generally means that we will post any personal information you provide us (see Information Requested, below, for more information).
Availability of supporting materials: Supporting materials, such as the species status assessment report, are available at https://www.regulations.gov at Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2023-0092.
What information is the Service specifically seeking?
Our final determination resulting from this proposed rule and comment period will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and as effective as possible. Therefore, we request comments or information from other governmental agencies, Native American Tribes, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested parties concerning this proposed rule. We particularly seek comments concerning:
(1) The species’ biology, range, and population trends, including:
(a) Biological or ecological requirements of the species, including habitat requirements for feeding, breeding, and sheltering;
(b) Genetics and taxonomy;
(c) Historical and current range, including distribution patterns and the locations of any additional populations of this species;
(d) Historical and current population levels, and current and projected trends;
(e) Past and ongoing conservation measures for the species, its habitat, or both; and
(f) Tribal use or cultural significance of the southwestern and northwestern pond turtle, including the use of species for ceremonial or traditional crafts.
(2) Threats and conservation actions affecting the species, including:
(a) Factors that may be affecting the continued existence of the species, which may include habitat modification or destruction, overutilization, disease, predation, the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, or other natural or manmade factors.
(b) Biological, commercial trade, or other relevant data concerning any threats (or lack thereof) to this species.
(c) Existing regulations or conservation actions that may be addressing threats to this species.
(3) Additional information concerning the historical and current status of this species.
(4) Information on regulations that may be necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the southwestern pond turtle and that we can consider in developing the 4(d) rule for the species. In particular, we seek information concerning the extent to which we should include any of the section 9 prohibitions in the 4(d) rule or whether we should consider any additional exceptions from the prohibitions in the 4(d) rule.
What happens next?
The Service will review and incorporate comments received during the comment period to prepare a final rule. This final rule may differ from our proposal based on the information received during the public comment period.