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Researchers in Oregon and Washington hope to find rare northwestern pond turtle habitat in the region.

COURTESY PHOTO: KATHY STREET/THE OREGON ZOO - The Oregon Zoo Foundation is recruiting Yamhill County property owners to search for the northwestern pond turtle on their land.The Oregon Zoo Foundation is funding a plan to recruit Yamhill County property owners to help search for a rare Pacific Northwest native reptile: the northwestern pond turtle, also known as the western pond turtle.

Using a foundation grant, the Northwest Ecological Research Institute is looking for Yamhill County properties with streams, ponds or wetlands that might harbor the small turtles.

According to the foundation, Yamhill County has the fewest documented reports of turtles in the Lower Willamette watershed, impeding conservation of the species in the area. Using a combination of visual encounter surveys and hands-on trapping, biologist Laura Guderyahn will lead a team of community volunteers to map where turtles live.

"We'll be looking for turtles on public and tribal lands throughout Yamhill County, but to get a more complete picture of where they live, we're hoping a few Yamhill County residents will allow us to survey their private property," Guderyahn said. "We're looking for properties with streams, wetlands or ponds that are a quarter-acre or larger in size."

Once common across the West, the northwestern pond turtle is an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon. The turtle was nearly wiped out two decades ago in Washington. Since then, a coalition of groups — including the Oregon Zoo's Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, the Woodland Park Zoo, Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bonneville Power Administration, the USDA Forest Service and Friends of the Columbia Gorge — has released more than 1,500 turtles in the West.

Yamhill County residents who want to include their property in the turtle survey should complete a short online form at Guderyahn hopes data collected will help local land managers improve habitat and wildlife connectivity throughout the watershed. Landowners who have confirmed native turtles using their property may be eligible for money to restore and improve the habitat.

"Turtles are decomposers, so they break down a lot of the dead, dying and decaying matter that's in a wetland and return it back to that ecosystem," Guderyahn said. "Their presence also indicates the health of ecosystems. If we see fewer and fewer turtles, there's probably something unhealthy in either that aquatic or the terrestrial habitat."

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