SKAMANIA COUNTY, Wash. – When Congress designated the Columbia River Gorge as a National Scenic Area 25 years ago, it did not require specific habitat preservation. Over the years little development has occurred in the area. And in an unintended benefit, many animals now call the Gorge home, including one turtle that has seen a large population increase due in part to the scenic designation.
Grassy hills surround a small pond, just out of sight from a winding gravel road. Dog Mountain towers over the placid pool that’s hidden inside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Looking out over the landscape, you wouldn’t guess that close to 100 western pond turtles are hibernating nearby, buried in the mud.
David Anderson is a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. While hiking out to observe the area, he says this is the most important pond in this part of the Gorge. A slight breeze blows as he points to a newly mowed hill.
“So this area here is a classic nest site for turtles. It’s got a south facing slope, so the ground gets more sun during the summertime,” he says.
The western pond turtle is endangered in Washington State (PDF). It’s found mainly in a series of small lakes and ponds in Skamania and Klickitat counties.
Western Pond Turtle (A map details the Western Pond Turtle’s historic range from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recovery plan.)
Biologists have reintroduced more than 1,000 turtles to the Columbia River Gorge and the Puget Sound. Two areas with wetlands historically home to the species. Only one native population exists in the state today, in a pond on the eastern end of the Gorge’s National Scenic Area.
Anderson believes the scenic area designation has helped to recover the species in the area. Turning down a gravel road, he says right now it’s one of Washington’s environmental success stories.
“Especially from a habitat standpoint and how many acres of land in the Gorge we’ve protected through acquisition. That’s probably been our most successful in this area,” he says.
Contrary to what some people may think, the Columbia River Gorge’s National Scenic Area designation did not set land aside for habitat preservation. It did restrict development, especially for private property owners. And with urban sprawl down to a minimum, habitat has in effect been preserved. That goes for the western pond turtle, and a laundry list of other threatened, endangered and common species.
“We have deer and elk, cougar and bear. We have great blue herons, waterfowl, a variety of neo-tropical birds, beaver, coyotes…” Anderson says.
This is all at the small pond near Dog Mountain. Extrapolate that to the entire scenic area.
“Everybody benefits,” he laughs.
Anderson says the scenic designation has made it easier to purchase land from private property owners. Many are willing to sell, especially if they don’t think they’ll be able to make enough money from development. That’s partially because of stricter restrictions from the scenic designation.
“The kind of things they might have to take into consideration is: building fence that’s wildlife friendly, as far as allowing deer to pass through, providing oak habitat, providing some shrubs or shrub layer. That type of thing,” he says.
The designation has also helped agencies receive more funds to purchase areas for habitat preservation. U.S. Forest Service ecologist Robin Dobson says acquiring this land has made species restoration much more successful.
When a species is listed as endangered or threatened, there are usually many causes. The same goes for the western pond turtle. more…
“In short, it’s a result of the scenic act that these things have been able to occur,” he says.
Dobson says it’s critical to have areas set aside where animals have little interaction with people.
“We often like to go into our homes and shut the doors and feel safe in an area that we’re by ourselves and we know what’s around us. Species are the same way. They want to have a place where they can go and lie down, or whatever they do, and feel like they’re safe. So it’s important to have areas set aside for species to accomplish this,” Dobson says.
As the western pond turtle populations begin to recover, Dobson says agencies will shift their focus from repopulation efforts to habitat restoration and management.
“If we provide the habitat for them, then the populations can do their thing. And that’s the key thing: providing the habitat and just letting them get on with their life,” he says.
Anderson says the agencies will continue to monitor the western pond turtle. Now it’s on to another species that could stand to benefit from more habitat restoration in the gorge: the western gray squirrel.
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