NORTH BONNEVILLE — La Center teens Chelsea Garner and Kaye Mitkos-Goff are used to being around wildlife. It's part of their summer jobs with the U.S. Youth Conservation Corps, working mostly in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
The two found a slightly more hands-on experience Wednesday in the Columbia River Gorge. Crouching over a sun-drenched pond, Garner and Mitkos-Goff gingerly lowered a western pond turtle into the water — and into the wild — and watched it go on its way. But not before the girls snapped a few pictures holding the turtle.
"We see animals all day," said Mitkos-Goff, 15. "But it's nothing like this."
By day's end, 28 turtles had been placed into natural habitat on the Washington side of the Columbia River, near Beacon Rock. That brought the year's total to 48, part of an ongoing program to boost the numbers of a species that was on the brink of disappearing here just two decades ago.
The effort, led by the Oregon Zoo in Portland and Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, plucks hatchling turtles from the wild, then rears them for 11 months in the safe confines of captivity. With controlled summerlike conditions year-round, the creatures feed and grow faster than winter hibernation would allow. When the turtles are ready — and large enough to fend for themselves — they're released back into the wild.
When the recovery plan started in the 1990s, there were fewer than 100 western pond turtles in the Columbia River Gorge, according to wildlife officials. Now that number is close to 1,500.
Slow and steady? Not exactly.
"We're trying to rapidly increase the number of turtles in these restored habitats," said David Shepherdson, a conservation scientist with the Oregon Zoo.
Several factors led to the decline of western pond turtles in the Gorge and the Northwest, an area where they historically thrived. The arrival of dams, development and highways took much of the wetland habitat they need, said Eric Holman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Bullfrogs also eat hatchling turtles, further reducing their numbers. That's a tough combination to overcome for a species with a long life cycle and a slow reproduction rate, he said.
Relatively little was known about the turtle population when it was discovered during a research project before the recovery effort started, Holman said.
"If we hadn't found them in that time frame, these populations would have gone altogether," Holman said.
The turtle release has become an annual event and a way for the zoo to reach out to regional communities as part of the program. A crowd of about 100 Wednesday included several youth organizations and wildlife groups. Leading the Youth Conservation Corps workers was supervisor Ty Estes, a Ridgefield resident studying natural resources at Washington State University in Pullman.
"I really enjoy it," Estes said of his work with the conservation corps. "It's kind of right up my alley."
The turtle recovery program has produced good results. Previous studies have shown survival rates among re-introduced turtles above 90 percent, according to Shepherdson. That's partly why zoo and wildlife officials are reluctant to publish the exact location of released turtles -- to keep people from disturbing, removing or otherwise harming them.
"It's been a tremendous success story," Shepherdson said. "It's not often that you can say that."