Okanagan Western Painted Turtles threatened by non-native species
KELOWNA – There are thousands of Western painted turtles in the Okanagan, and one local reptile specialist is trying to raise awareness about how to protect the at-risk species.
Justin DeMerchant is working with a biology professor at UBC Okanagan to research the valley’s turtle population.
“Western Painted Turtles are by far the most common type of turtle around in the Okanagan and there are a few red-eared sliders,” says DeMerchant.
The Western Painted Turtle is indigenous to the Okanagan and is listed as ‘at-risk.’ The reptile’s threat is heightened when people release red-eared slider turtles and other non-native species into local wetlands.
“Red-eared sliders are not from here, they’re from Mexico,” explains DeMerchant. “They don’t do well in the wild here and it’s bad to release them; it’s bad for both the turtles to get released and for the environment.”
In Kelowna’s Rotary Marsh Park, all sorts of wildlife can be seen, such as deer, osprey and ducks. So, it might seem like a good idea to release a pet turtle into the marsh. However, DeMerchant says releasing any domesticated turtles into the wild could prove fatal for both the visitor and the native species.
“It’s possible that the turtles could carry pathogens that the native species aren’t immune to fighting off,” says DeMerchant.
His field work involves taking hundreds of photos of the turtles in public wetlands throughout the Okanagan.
“This whole topic about turtles in general is something that has recently come to the attention of scientists,” says DeMerchant. “It would be nice to get some more scientific research about this topic to raise some awareness about it.”
And that’s what he is setting out to do. He says if you have a pet turtle and can’t keep it anymore, he suggests that you find another home for it that is not in the wild.
The Western Painted Turtles are considered an endangered species in the lower mainland.