State wildlife officials are on the hunt for invasive snapping turtles.
These prehistoric-looking creatures, native to the eastern part of Canada and the U.S. , have settled into the Tualatin River watershed and been spotted elsewhere, including the Clackamas, Willamette, Columbia, Sandy, Molalla, Pudding and Umpqua rivers and the Columbia Slough.
They’re easy to spot: They have large triangular-shaped heads, a brownish round carapace or shell with pointed edges and a long pointy tail. When threatened or targeting prey, they dart out their long neck, open their wide mouth and snap, with a razor-sharp bite.
They’re not fussy eaters, either. “They will eat anything they can get their mouths on,” said Susan Barnes, a native turtle conservationist and regional wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They’re stealthy predators. They’re mainly after live prey. Goslings – birds – snakes – really anything they can fit in their mouths.”
They devour food sought by native species like eagles and osprey while competing with native turtles for food and nesting space, Barnes said.
“We don’t know what impact they’re having on our native turtles, though they have the potential to eat little native turtles,” Barnes said.
That means they’re putting pressure on native species in decline.
Many amphibians and reptiles across the country are endangered. According to the department, two species of sea turtles in Oregon are endangered – the leatherback and loggerhead – and three other amphibians are threatened – the green sea turtle, olive ridley sea turtle and the Oregon spotted frog.
Oregon has two native freshwater turtle species: the Western pond and Western painted turtle. Though not on the federal Endangered Species List, they are currently classified by state wildlife department officials as sensitive-critical. That means they are facing threats and could end up on the threatened or endangered lists without conservation action.
There are also two types of snapping turtles, both invasive in Oregon: the alligator and common. Oregon mostly has common snapping turtles. Barnes said the wildlife department has only seen one alligator snapping turtle in the wild in Oregon when it captured one at the Prineville Reservoir in 2013.
Biologists suspect it was someone’s pet and was released because it became too big and unmanageable. The common snapping turtle also was likely brought to Oregon as pets that were released, Barnes said.
The department asked that anyone who sees the creature to report it. When people feel safe, they can also capture them by throwing a container over them and putting a rock on it. They can be delivered to a local Fish and Wildlife office, or you can call and have a professional pick it up.
Barnes said her office got a call on Wednesday from a woman who had one in her back yard. Her toddler spotted it. Cool headed, the woman threw a container over it, sealed it and took it to state biologists.
Adults brought in are euthanized. The state doesn’t have enough staff to keep them, and they can’t be sent to their native territory.
“They’re never released back into the wild because they’re carrying diseases and pathogens,” Barnes said. “We do keep some invasive turtles for education.”
She said it would be inhumane to keep an adult in captivity because that would put it under stress, but she said when they’re found young, they adapt to captivity.
This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.