Habitat Acquisition Trust

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Western Painted Turtles

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turtle_engelstoft_5.jpgHAT has partnered with the federal Habitat Stewardship Program since 2005 to provide landowner contact services where Species-at-Risk may live. We are meeting with private landowners from Sooke to Galiano hoping to gain knowledge of the distribution and habits of our rare Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii ~ Pacific coast population). The species' coastal populations are federally listed as endangered. Painted turtles require very specific freshwater habitats that are threatened by rapid urban development. Road mortality and nest site disturbance are two other main threats (photo of hatchling by Christian Engelstoft at Beaver Lake).

Please send reports of turtle sightings and photos to

  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it / call 250.995.2428

Learn to identify a Painted Turtle with our identification sheet (click here) or scroll to the bottom of the page.

Update June 9, 2010: This week we have received many reports of female painted turtles nesting on land. Watch for turtles crossing roads or digging in the ground around dawn and dusk.  Do not move turtles unless they are in danger. 

Update April 2010:  Five hatchling painted turtles were found crushed on Beaver Lake Road on March 31st. Hatchling turtles have been emerging from their nests on land begining in mid-March.  Loonie-sized baby turtles may be found near holes in open banks, trails, gardens, and lawns near water habitats; please photograph and report turtles to help HAT protect nesting habitat and migration corridors.  Adults have also emerged from hibernation in pond bottoms and may be found travelling overland to their basking and foraging (aquatic) habitats.

Summary of HAT's 2009 Turtle Research and Conservation Project

The Pacific Coast Population of the Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) was designated as endangered in Canada in 2006. Major loss of wetlands and rapid increases in roads, development, and people pose threats to the turtles over much of their range in southwestern B.C. During the 2009 field season, we continued efforts begun in 2008 to better delineate the distribution of the turtles on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands and to work with landowners on stewardship activities. Specific objectives in 2009 were to survey water bodies with suitable habitat to fill in distribution gaps, to revisit known sites to identify nesting areas and clarify habitat use, and to identify threats and prepare guidelines to help landowners and managers protect turtles on their lands. A further objective was to solicit information on turtle sightings through public outreach and to involve private landowners and land managers in stewardship activities.

From April to August 2009, we surveyed 30 water bodies for turtles. Twenty-four sites were on Vancouver Island: Capital Regional District (CRD), 15 sites; Alberni Valley, 7 sites; Nanaimo area, 2 sites. The remaining six sites were on Galiano Island. On southern Vancouver Island, the focus was on unsurveyed water bodies in the west, from Metchosin to Sooke and to Port Renfrew, and on repeated surveys at Elk/Beaver Lake to obtain information on habitat use and timing of reproduction. We found the Western Painted Turtle at six sites, all of which had previous records of the species: Elk/Beaver Lake, Langford Lake, and Matheson Lake on southern Vancouver Island; Patterson Lake, Devil’s Den Lake, and “Airport Wetlands” in Alberni Valley. In addition, landowner observations resulted in records of the species from two properties in Metchosin and from Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary in Saanich. We found the introduced Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta) at nine sites, two of which represent new records (Pease and Kemp Lakes), while the species has been reported previously from the remaining sites (Durrance, Thetis, Elk/Beaver, Matheson, Westwood, and Laughlin Lakes). The two species of turtles co-occurred at Elk/Beaver, Matheson, and Langford Lakes. At Elk/Beaver Lake, both species were detected most easily from April to mid-May while basking on logs, on other floating objects, or along the shoreline.  Surveys and census counts are best conducted at this time.

Turtles are particularly vulnerable on nesting grounds, and it is important that these areas are identified and protected from disturbance. We located turtle nesting grounds in the Alberni Valley (Patterson Lake, “Airport Wetlands”, and Devil’s Den Lake) and on southern Vancouver Island (Elk/Beaver Lake and Matheson Lake Regional Parks). In the Alberni Valley, turtles nested along gravel sides of main forestry roads, on abandoned spur roads, and in old gravel pits in human-modified habitats, and in pockets of deeper soil on rocky bluffs and within patches of exposed loamy soil along lakeshores and islands in natural habitats. The nesting sites in the natural habitat are of particular interest, as such sites and their features are poorly documented on the west coast. At Elk/Beaver Lake, with help from CRD Parks volunteers, we located turtle nests on gravel road sides, parking lots, and old field habitats. To obtain information on nesting success and timing, we monitored a communal Western Painted Turtle nesting area adjacent to a pond. After overwintering in the nest, hatchling turtles emerged from 14 nests from 14 April to 28 May 2009. Females laid eggs from end of May to end of June, based on 10 new nests found in 2009. At Matheson Lake, a communal nesting area found in 2008 had been disturbed by predators, and there was no evidence of successful emergence of hatchlings or of new nests in 2009.

Habitat fragmentation and road mortality were identified as threats to turtles at many sites. A detailed assessment within CRD showed five areas where the potential of road kill is high (in Saanich, Highlands, Langford, and Metchosin). Together with municipalities, HAT is engaging in negotiations to install road and interpretive signs at strategic locations to help reduce road kill and raise public awareness of turtles.

Stewardship and outreach activities included landowner contacts in prioritized focus areas and general public outreach, which consisted of workshops, festivals, group presentations, and media releases. We worked with two large landowners and developed management guidelines, including turtle best management practices for forestry lands. On private residential lands, direct outreach to landowners in turtle habitat resulted in nearly 400 unique contacts. Of 27 free and confidential visits with landowners in focus areas, 20 families signed non-legal stewardship agreements with HAT. Two private landowners were provided with site-specific guidelines to help maintain and enhance habitat for turtles that frequent their properties.

Recommended studies include continuation of surveys to fill in distribution gaps and monitoring of nesting grounds to obtain a more complete picture of hatchling emergence and egg-laying activities over multiple years. Radio-telemetry is recommended to obtain detailed information on movements of individual turtles and to better understand threats from habitat fragmentation, roadkill, recreation, and other sources. We hope to continue collaboration with landowners in 2010 to help maintain, restore, and enhance turtle habitat and to protect populations.

Results of 2008 outreach and field research included three new turtle population occcurences mapped thanks to over 60 reports from the public and concerned landholders. To read the entire turtle report by professional biologists Christian Engelstoft and Kristina Ovaska, please click here.

turtle_pile.jpgPainted Turtles have low, smooth, oval, unkeeled upper shells. While the upper shell (top) is dark green, the lower shell (underside) features striking orange to red patterns that give them the name "painted turtle". Hatchlings are no larger than a loonie (image at top), while adults 30 years or older can reach 25 cm long (10 inches).

Released pet turtles like Red-eared Sliders and Peninsula Cooters can be mistaken for Painted Turtles (see ID page at bottom). Releasing pet turtles into the wild is never appropriate; abandoned pets can introduce disease and compete with native turtles.

Turtles require emergent rocks and logs for sunning close to their weedy aquatic feeding areas. People may also see turtles walking on land during the hot summer months as they search for nesting habitat. Females dig nests with their hind feet in exposed, sandy places up to 300 metres from their aquatic habitats. These nesting sites are sometimes found along trails and road cuts with south facing slopes. Nesting sites can be the limiting factor on population size as they are vulnerable to extreme winter cold, trampling, and predation (dogs, cats, raccoons, otters, mink, and others). Homeowners can protect nesting grounds and provide extra logs for sunning in the water.

"We would love to hear about your turtle sightings," says Christian Englestoft. He and Kristina Ovaska are scientific advisors to the Western Painted Turtle Recovery Team. "Thanks to landowners that have helped us monitor for the turtles, we are finding previously undiscovered habitat areas. We still need to learn more about their movements over land, particularly during the summer nesting season." Send photos to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it / call 250.995.2428.

The good news is that Painted Turtles and humans can co-exist, if landowners take a few simple precautions. These include maintaining natural shoreline vegetation and partially submerged logs, avoiding pesticide use, and protecting identified nesting areas from disturbance. Because there are no legal requirements to protect endangered species on private lands, voluntary stewardship by landowners is critical for turtle habitat protection.

Learn to identify a Painted Turtle with our identification page (click here) or see below.

Did you see an abandoned pet or a native western painted turtle? Compare the two species:


Habitat Stewardship Program

With funding from Environment Canada's Habitat Stewardship Program, we are meeting with landowners who are interested in protecting our region's unique natural heritage. HAT's services are free and confidential.


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