Early in June I received a great email: “Turtle logs are gathered, loaded and delivered.” I headed out to Grant Butte Wetlands in east Gresham to check them out. Stacked next to an earlier delivery, the logs were bent and crooked, and a few had a little rot. Nice-looking turtle logs, I thought.
Turtles have been trudging across the earth and swimming in oceans, rivers and ponds for more than 200 million years. They have evolved to help them persist through tough times. Though turtles can claim almost the entire world as their habitat, each species has specific habitat features that allow it to thrive.
Oregon has two native turtle species: western painted and western pond turtles. Both are declining in numbers due to habitat loss and degradation. Fortunately, several Metro parks and natural areas have native turtles, and Grant Butte Wetlands is one of them. Here, western painted turtles have been reproducing along Fairview Creek and its wetlands. When Metro and the City of Gresham acquired the land in 2014, we knew we had the opportunity to improve the habitat for turtles.
Grant Butte Wetlands is an almost – but not quite – complete homeland for native turtles. The slow-moving waters, muddy bottom of the channel and wetland provide places to forage, hide and hibernate. The shallow water provides good habitat for younger, smaller turtles, especially because of abundant aquatic vegetation to feed on and hide from predators like great blue herons and raccoons.
It’s only missing some turtle-friendly down wood and improved nesting areas. Turtles jump-start their day by sunning themselves on rocks or down wood and stretching out their necks and toes to absorb the sun’s heat. As cold-blooded ectotherms, turtles need sunny basking sites to control their body temperature.
For hundreds of years the wetlands were a willow swamp that likely had many down logs bordering the waters. More recently the land was used for agriculture and grazing, and the wood that provided basking sites was removed. A recent survey of the area confirmed that there are few places for turtles to pull out of the water and hang out in the sun.
Fortunately, we can easily fix that. Contractors this fall will move the logs we’ve collected out to the water’s edge. Tucked along the banks, the wood will provide basking sites. Placed in the water, the logs become places young turtles can forage and hide under. This simple, easy and inexpensive work will help the turtles that make Grant Butte Wetlands their home.
Harder to do, but equally important, is improving nesting habitat. Western painted turtles need sunny banks of sandy or gravelly soils for nesting. Unfortunately, dense pasture grasses cover much of the potential nesting sites. We think the lack of good nesting areas has sent females on long treks, including crossing five lanes of Southeast Division Street in search of places to lay their eggs.
Two years ago, we started working to improve nest sites. A small but sunny rise near the wetland was our best opportunity. We’ve been thinning out the grass and creating small, bare spots. We hope the combination of new basking logs and improved nesting habitat will entice more western painted turtles to make Grant Butte Wetlands home.
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