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Conservation of northwestern and southwestern pond turtles: Threats, population size estimates, and population viability analysis

September 7, 2021

Accurate status assessments of long-lived, widely distributed taxa depend on the availability of long-term monitoring data from multiple populations. However, monitoring populations across large temporal and spatial scales is often beyond the scope of any one researcher or research group. Consequently, wildlife managers may be tasked with utilizing limited information from different sources to detect range-wide evidence of population declines and their causes. When assessments need to be made under such constraints, the research and management communities must determine how to extrapolate from variable population data to species-level inferences. Here, using three different approaches, we integrate and analyze data from the peer-reviewed literature and government agency reports to inform conservation for northwestern pond turtles (NPT) Actinemys marmorata and southwestern pond turtles (SPT) Actinemys pallida. Both NPT and SPT are long-lived freshwater turtles distributed along the west coast of the United States and Mexico. Conservation concerns exist for both species; however, SPT may face more severe threats and are thought to exist at lower densities throughout their range than NPT. For each species, we ranked the impacts of 13 potential threats, estimated population sizes, and modeled population viability with and without long-term droughts. Our results suggest that predation of hatchlings by invasive predators, such as American bullfrogs Lithobates catesbeianus and Largemouth Bass Micropterus salmoides, is a high-ranking threat for NPT and SPT. Southwestern pond turtles may also face more severe impacts associated with natural disasters (droughts, wildfires, and floods) than do NPT. Population size estimates from trapping surveys indicate that SPT have smaller population sizes on average than do NPT (P = 0.0003), suggesting they may be at greater risk of local extirpation. Population viability analysis models revealed that long-term droughts are a key environmental parameter; as the frequency of severe droughts increases with climate change, the likelihood of population recovery decreases, especially when census sizes are low. Given current population trends and vulnerability to natural disasters throughout their range, we suggest that conservation and recovery actions first focus on SPT to prevent further population declines.

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