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Searching for turtles in the Tualatin River

Tualatin Riverkeepers and Clean Water Services joined a survey of the river in an effort to help document and collect data on the area's turtle population


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Volunteers travel downstream on the Tualatin River to take part in a turtle survey.
When Jim Holley looks at the Willamette River and the rivers that feed into it, he imagines the way they might have looked a few centuries ago. The area would have been one massive wetland, with plenty of off-shoots, nooks and crannies for all the animals that called it home.

Today, the Willamette and smaller rivers such as the Tualatin are channelized, Holley said, each flowing primarily in one relatively predictable and steady stream. While this is beneficial for many human interests, the populations of certain animals have suffered. And on a hot June day, Holley had his eyes peeled for one creature and one creature only: turtles.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jim Holley leads a group of volunteers in a turtle survey upstream on the Tualatin River.

“They value their privacy; they don’t want to be disturbed. If you keep stirring them, that stresses them out,” Holley said. “It’s a loss of habitat. You used to have the whole valley and now you only have certain spots where people aren’t looking.”

On Wednesday, June 10, Holley led a group of volunteers, including Brian Wegener from the Tualatin Riverkeepers, on a turtle survey of the Tualatin River. In canoes, half the group went upstream from Tualatin Community Park while the other half went downstream, many armed with binoculars. The goal was to scan the banks, specifically areas with rock or log habitats, for turtles poking out of the water or basking in the sun.

These types of surveys are typically funded through grants for specific organizations. In past years, Clean Water Services has provided the bulk of the funding, and this year, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife led the charge. But regardless of the organization taking the helm, the goals typically remain the same — to better understand the turtle population in the area. That’s Holley’s job. He works in conjunction with the organizations and spends most of the year surveying turtle, amphibian and salmon populations.

“I’ve had three seasons of work the last few years ... amphibians in the winter, turtles in the spring and then salmon in the summer,” he said, noting that for these kinds of jobs, it’s important to have a flexible person who can be available on a random, sunny Tuesday. “It’s really awesome work, and somebody’s gotta do it.”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A great blue heron sits on a fallen tree on the Tualatin River.

What’s the point?

For the surveys, Holley checks 40 different sites in the area, including places such as Oswego Lake and the Pudding River in Canby. Spring is prime turtle-sighting time, and by the time June rolls around on a warm year such as this one, they become more and more rare since turtles spend most of their time cooling off in the water. Last week, only one turtle was seen during the survey, upstream from Tualatin Community Park.

“The maximum number you see is the minimum number that are there, but they’re never all out there at once,” said Holley, noting that the surveys are to measure presence, not population. “So even if we don’t see any, we can’t say that they’re not there.”

In this area, there are four types of turtles that might be found. On the native side, there are western pond turtles and western painted turtles, and both are listed as critical on the state’s sensitive species list, Holley explained. In addition, two types of non-native turtles reside in the area, snapping turtles and red-eared sliders. Knowing more about all of these populations will help organizations better protect the natives and their habitats.

“We’re concerned about what lives in the Tualatin River and (want) to see signs of progress as the river gets cleaned up. Having native animals and habitat is a good indicator of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go,” said Wegener, advocacy and communications manager for Tualatin Riverkeepers. “It looks like we have some habitat for turtles, but there are still some challenges of getting them back in the river. There’s a lot of questions: Why aren’t they there? What’d be the best strategy for getting them back?”

Figuring this out means assessing the populations and the habitat through surveys by boat, as well as by simply standing and observing at certain sites. Just this spring, conservation guidelines for Oregon turtles were published in an effort to raise awareness and knowledge. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Anna Rankin points to wildlife while taking part in a turtle survey on the Tualatin River.

While turtles aren’t necessarily the first animal most people think of when they consider Willamette Valley wildlife, they’re an important one, especially because of this fact.

“They definitely used to be really common around here, and they still could be,” said Holley. Five years ago, “when I took that first job, I had never seen a turtle in Oregon — from humble beginnings. But really, you have to be looking for them. You don’t just generally run into turtles.”

And since turtles like to be out of the fray, they’re simply hard to spot. Several times during the survey, Holley encouraged volunteers to hurry through certain areas, such as near the Interstate 5 overpass, saying “If I were a turtle, I wouldn’t hang out here.”

Holley might not be able to visit the Tualatin River of 1800, but with his work and the help of the volunteers and agencies by his side, he might be able to help at least one animal species feel at home again. As for the most important thing people can know about turtles? That question was an easy one.

“Just that they exist and they’re awesome,” he said, grinning, before pulling binoculars up to his eyes to scout an entanglement of logs.

What to do if you see a turtle:

- It's important to report turtle sightings so that data can be as updated and accurate as possible

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