There are only 3 types of turtles in Idaho. The Gem State only has 1 native turtle, and 2 non-native invasive species that can be found in the beautiful lakes, streams, and ponds across this land.
The state itself has 15 species of amphibians and 22 reptile species in total.
The National Park Service defines a non-native species as organisms that don’t naturally occur in that area. They were introduced either by accident or deliberately by human activities.
While non-native and invasive often are used interchangeably, that isn’t necessarily the case. An invasive species is non-native, but the difference is that invasive species cause harm to the environment, including animal and/or plant health, human health, or economic factors.
Now, let’s delve further into detail about the turtle species found in Idaho, both the lone native Western Painted turtle, and both invasive species, the Red Eared Slider, and the Common Snapping turtle.
Table of Contents
Native Species of Turtle in Idaho
1. Western Painted Turtle
- Experience Level: Beginner
- Family: Emydidae
- Scientific Name: Chrysemys Picta Belli
- Other Names: N/A
- Adult Size: Between 4 and 10 inches
- Life Span: Between 30 and 50 years
- Average Price Range: Between $30 and $150
- Conservation Status State Rank S3 (Vulnerable, at moderate risk of extirpation), Global Rank G5 (Secure with a low risk of elimination or extinction), Least Concern on IUCN Red List
The Western Painted turtle is mainly found in northern counties, these include:
The Western Painted turtle is one of four subspecies of Chrysemys Picta, the most widespread species of turtles in the United States. They can be found from Washington state to Maine, and from Wisconsin to Louisiana.
There are only a few states that cannot claim Painted turtles as native species. These turtles can even survive the cold winters in Canada, and the dry, hot conditions of Mexico.
The Western Painted turtle is the largest of the subspecies, often reaching lengths of 10 inches, though sometimes they can grow a little longer than that.
You can recognize this turtle by the bright yellow, striped markings on their heads and necks. This is set on a backdrop of dark brown, or black skin. Their legs are also streaked with yellow, but may also have a few reddish-orange streaks.
Their carapace (upper part of the shell) is smooth, almost flattened, and keelless. The color can range from olive, brown, to nearly black with a network of faint lighter colored lines. These fade as the turtle ages, and may completely disappear.
The marginal and side scutes are red with dark markings, and the plastron (bottom part of the shell) is reddish-orange and highly patterned.
Males are typically smaller than females, but they have longer tails and very long front claws. The plastron on male Painted turtles is concave near the back while female plastrons are more flattened.
The Western Painted turtle can be found living in shallow areas of large lakes and rivers, or in shallow ponds, streams, marshes, and even swamps. These areas need to provide plenty of basking spots such as fallen logs, low, drooping branches, or low banks.
They also require a lot of vegetation in their habitat as the adults—though omnivorous—eat a lot of aquatic plants. Baby and juvenile Western Painted turtles eat more aquatic animals such as insects, snails, crayfish, and small fish.
While the Western Painted turtle species on a whole is listed as Not Vulnerable, in Idaho, these turtles are a Protected Nongame species. You are not allowed to collect or possess wild Western Painted turtles.
You can, however, own a captive bred Western Painted turtle you purchase from a reputable, licensed dealer or pet store.
Non-native Species of Turtles in Idaho
Sometimes, a non-native species of animal can be introduced into an area to help with the environment. They may be utilized to restore the land, reduce insect populations, or help to restore the ecosystem.
Most of the time though, non-natives are accidentally introduced or purposefully let go by pet owners. One of the most prominent invasive species is the Burmese Python which is taking over southern Florida.
In Idaho, there are two species of turtles that have been introduced to the environment and are making life harder for native species, and not just the Western Painted turtles. While you are out and about in Idaho, if you notice invasive species in your area, you are urged to call the Idaho Invasive Species Hotline at 1-877-336-8676.
2. Red Eared Slider
- Experience level: Beginner
- Family: Emydidae
- Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta elegans
- Common Name: Pond slider, Red-eared terrapin, Water slider
- Average Adult Size: 6 – 8 inches
- Life Span: 20 to 40 years
- Average Price Range: approximately $30 to $100
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Back in the day (starting in the 1950s) the Red Eared slider became an extremely popular pet. They were sold in nearly every type of retail store. Potential buyers were told these pets were easy to care for and didn’t get very big as long as they were kept in a small tank.
Unfortunately, most consumers who fell for this misinformation soon found out that the turtles grew very quickly, and could make a smelly, nasty looking mess in their cramped tanks. They also found out these turtles could live for 20, 30, or even 40 years.
Not knowing what to do with these animals, and not wanting to harm them, many frustrated parents let these turtles loose in local ponds, streams, or other bodies of water.
While most turtles grow very slowly, produce small numbers of offspring that often don’t make it to adulthood, and need a specific type of environment to survive, that isn’t the case with Red Eared Sliders.
These turtles are habitat generalists and can make due in most types of water. Even though they are native to the warm areas of the Southern United States, these turtles can withstand even the cold Idaho winters.
Red Eared Sliders are prolific breeders compared to most turtle species. As I said before, they can live for decades, and once they finally find a mate, they can breed quickly. One female can 3 to 5 clutches of eggs per year.
Each clutch can have anywhere from 10 to 30 eggs in it. So by doing the simple math, given optimum conditions, one Red Eared Slider female can lay up to 150 eggs in a single mating season.
Other behaviors that help the Red Eared Slider outperform other turtles are their diet and their aggressive nature toward other species of turtles. Red Ears will eat nearly anything it can stuff into its mouth.
They eat most types of vegetation, carrion, fish, crayfish, tadpoles, insects, fruits, seeds, frogs, snails, and amphibians. If it’s small and it moves, they will try to eat it.
Red Eared Sliders are aggressive toward other species of turtles, especially smaller turtles. When a large colony of Red Ears is established in a body of water, they will prevent the other turtles from basking or will bully them until they leave the area.
I’m not saying these turtles are a horrible species of turtle, because they can be great pets, and are very beneficial in their native habitats. They are just quite invasive in areas they don’t belong.
How Do You Identify Red Eared Sliders?
These sliders look similar to other pond sliders and painted turtles. If you were to quickly glance at both all these species, you’d probably have a hard time identifying them.
Since most of these turtles tend to quickly slide into the water at the first sign of trouble, you might not know what species you just saw.
The biggest tell on Red Eared Sliders is the coloration that gave them their name. They are the only turtle species that has two red patches just behind their eyes that look like ears.
They have yellowish stripes along their heads and limbs like painted turtles, and a similar looking carapace. The Red Eared Slider’s shell is more domed and is more brightly decorated, especially in younger turtles.
The plastron is different also if you’re able to look that closely. The plastron on Red Eared Sliders is yellowish, but the scutes have a single black spot in the middle.
Females again are larger than males. Like the Western Painted turtle, males have longer front claws, longer tails, and a concave plastron. Females usually average around 8 or 9 inches in length, but given the right conditions, some have reached lengths near 12 inches.
These turtles can survive in most types of water, but they prefer shallow waters. Even in deep lakes, they will be found more in shallow ends near land. Though they are excellent swimmers they also prefer slow moving water.
3. Snapping Turtle
- Experience level: Intermediate to Expert
- Family: Chelydrida
- Scientific Name: Chelydra Serpentina
- Other Names: Snapping Turtle, Snapper, Eastern Snapping Turtle
- Average Adult Size: 8 to 20 inches
- Life Span: 30 – 50 years
- Average Price Range: Approximately $40 to $120
- Conservation Status: Least concern
The Common Snapping turtle is a large, fearsome looking creature. They have large, broad limbs, a ridged tail nearly as long as their carapace, a large thick upper shell, and a wide head with a sharp beak.
Their plastron is usually white and very small to allow for ample movement of the large limbs. They have a long, serpentine neck—hence the scientific name C. Serpentina.
In the water, the Snapping turtle prefers to lay on muddy and soft bottoms to wait for prey to come near. When something edible gets close, the turtle spears its head forward, gaping jaws open, and “snaps” the food up.
The Common Snapping turtle does not like to leave the water, but it will when it comes time to look for a proper nesting site. They will also leave their home to search for a less crowded place at times too.
You may see algae covering the shell of these turtles because of how infrequently they leave the water. Even when it comes to basking, the Common Snapping turtle mostly swims close to the surface to warm up.
When the Snapping turtle leaves the safety of the water, it can become aggressive. While they are on the top of the food chain, they feel vulnerable on dry land. And they should be because when they encounter roads and vehicles, it’s the turtle that loses.
Generally, this turtle is passive and will try to simply get away from people, but if it’s handled, threatened, or cornered the Snapping turtle will hiss, and open its sharp beak as a warning. If this display does not warn the threat away, it can and will bite.
While there are no documented records of Common Snapping turtles breaking bones, they can cause deep gashes with their bites. Then infection can set in if the wound is not treated correctly.
Snapping turtle carapaces are often brown, olive, or black and may have ridges. The ridges are more pronounced on younger turtles and smooth out as they age.
Their skin color can vary from yellowish, dark brown, or rusty red/orange.
This turtle can live in brackish or freshwater. They prefer slower moving bodies of water such as swamps, lakes, and slow moving rivers and streams. They also like watery habitats with soft bottoms and plenty of vegetation.
The Snapping Turtle is native to the Eastern coast of the United States to the Rocky Mountains. Though there are non-native colonies set up in some states west of the Rockies such as Washington and Oregon.
It’s most likely that the Snapping turtle found its way into Idaho by former pet owners releasing them into the wild.
Snapping turtles are invasive in Idaho because they will eat nearly anything they can get into their mouths. This includes other, smaller turtles. Snapping turtles are omnivorous and will consume plant matter, fish, crustaceans, worms, snails, amphibians, insects, carrion, and even waterfowl.
The Common Snapping turtle is an ambush predator. When it comes to water birds the Snapping turtle may bite their feet and then clamp down on the bird’s neck, or it will drag it into the water and drown it.
While the eggs and juvenile turtles can become food for other animals such as raccoons, skunks, birds, and snakes, once the Snapping turtle reaches adulthood, they have very few natural predators in Idaho.
Bears and coyotes may be the only animals in Idaho that can take on full grown Snapping Turtles. In their native ranges, Snapping turtles need to be on the lookout for Alligator Snapping turtles, and Alligators themselves.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there any tortoises in Idaho
There are 5 species of tortoises native to the United States but none of them live in Idaho. There is only one native species of turtle residing in Idaho, the Western Painted turtle. There are two non-native species, the Red Eared Slider, and the Common Snapping turtle that can be found in this state.
Can you own turtles in Idaho?
It is legal to own pet turtles in Idaho, but this is dependent on the species. Endangered and threatened turtles may be illegal to keep as pets. You’ll have to check your local laws on turtle ownership.
However, because of the invasive tendency of the Red Eared Slider, the possession, shipping, transportation, or importation of this turtle is illegal without a permit. Most other species of turtles and tortoises are legal to own in Idaho.
The Western Painted turtle is classified as Protected Nongame Species by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Therefore it is illegal to collect, possess, harm, or otherwise remove these protected turtles from the state.
Are turtles found in Idaho dangerous?
Like most wild animals, turtles just want to be left alone and will not bother you if you don’t bother them. Most turtles are naturally shy and try to get away from humans, but they can bite if they are handled.
Smaller turtles may break the skin if they bite, but they usually are not dangerous. Infection can set in in turtle bites.
Turtles also carry salmonella which can be transmitted to humans. The best way to avoid this is to wash your hands after handling any reptiles or after touching that the turtle has come in contact with.
The safest thing to do when you see a wild turtle is to give it space and leave it alone. They’ve been on this planet much longer than we have, and they know what’s best for them.
Idaho is a state with plenty of wildlife, and I’m not talking about life on college campuses. There are 22 different species of reptiles in the state, but only one native turtle species.
Once upon a time, the Western Painted turtle was the only turtle found in the Gem State. Because of the prolific turtle pet trade, two non-native turtles are calling Idaho home now. These species are the Red Eared Sliders, and Common Snapping turtles.
We love to hear from our readers so drop us a line. Just say hi, recount any turtle encounters of your own, or let us know how we’re doing. Until then, see you at the next one!
Other nearby states
- Turtles in Montana
- Turtles in Nevada
- Turtles in Oregon
- Turtles in Washington
- Turtles in Wyoming
- Turtles in Utah