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Turtles in Montana (4 Species)

There are only 3 native species of turtles in Montana. There is one non-native, introduced species found here. If you’ve read other state turtle articles, I bet you can guess what species that is.

While Montana is a state that has the perfect environment for large mammals such as bison, cougars, bears, bighorn sheep, and elk, reptiles have a hard time taking the long, cold winters.

You can keep turtles as pets in Montana as long as you have the right setup. During the long winters, you’ll have to move warm loving turtles inside to a warm, protected area.

Maybe you just want to know what kind of turtles are found in this area to use as a herping guide. Or maybe you finished streaming all the episodes of Yellowstone and are interested in finding out more about this amazing state. Whatever the case, let’s dive in before it gets too chilly.

Painted Turtles in Montana

1. Western Painted Turtle

Western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) on shore in dirt
Western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) on shore in dirt
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta belli
  • Other Names: N/A
  • Adult Size: 4 to 10 inches (10 to 25.5 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30 to 50 years
  • Average Price Range: $20 to $50

The Western Painted turtle is the state’s most widespread species, but population numbers are difficult to ascertain. While they are native to Montana, some pet owners have released more of these turtles into the state’s waters, increasing their spread.

Since Western Painted turtles can withstand such cold temperatures, they are found throughout the entire state in larger bodies of water such as lakes and wide rivers.

Western Painted turtles have a black or dark brown carapace (the upper part of the turtle’s shell) with a red or orange outer edge. The head of this turtle has bright yellow stripes, while the limbs have yellow, red, or orange stripes.

The plastron (bottom section of the shell) is usually bright orange or deep red with an ornate pattern of brown, black, orange, and/or white running along the midline.

Painted turtles spend a lot of time basking in the sun on logs, rocks, or banks of the water. When slightly disturbed, they will quickly escape back into the water. 

Western Painted turtles can stay submerged in near freezing water for up to 4 months, a great adaptation for cold states like Montana. When they are active, Painted turtles feed mostly on plants, but they will eat some insects and aquatic invertebrates. Juveniles have a more carnivorous diet. 

Snapping Turtles in Montana

2. Common Snapping Turtle

Common Snapping turtle basking on a log
Common Snapping turtle basking on a log
  • Experience Level: Intermediate to Expert
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina
  • Other Names: Common Snapper, Eastern Snapping turtle, Snapper
  • Adult Size: 8 to 20 inches (20 to 51 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30 to 50 years
  • Average Price Range: $20 to $40

Common Snapping turtles are the largest turtle species found in Montana. They can reach lengths (measuring the shell) of 20 inches long, and weigh as much as 35 pounds or more. 

These shelled beasts are found in the eastern side of Montana in large bodies of water such as big ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and large, slow moving rivers. They prefer soft bottoms where they can settle in and wait for food to come to them. 

Snapping turtles have thick shells, thick, long limbs that end with large claws, and long, lumpy tails. They have a long neck and big head covered in fleshy warts and spikes. Their skin can be yellow to dark brown, and their carapace is usually dark brown but may appear green because of the algae that typically grows on it.

While in the water, Snappers are elusive and submissive but corner them on land, and they become nearly as dangerous as a wolverine. These turtles don’t leave the water often, but they will, to search for a new habitat, or nesting site.

Snappers are mostly carnivorous. They feed on frogs, fish, tadpoles, and other aquatic organisms, as well as occasional plant matter and algae.

Softshell Turtles in Montana

3. Western Spiny Softshell Turtle

Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone Spinifera Spinifera) in shallow water near shore of creek
Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone Spinifera Spinifera) in shallow water near shore of creek – source
  • Experience Level: Intermediate to Expert
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Scientific Name: Apalone spinifera hartwegi
  • Other Names: N/A
  • Adult Size: 5 to 17 inches (12.5 to 43 cm)
  • Lifespan: 20 to 50 years
  • Average Price Range: $70 to $280

Now we come across the third and final native turtle in Montana, the Western Spiny Softshell. These flattened, rubbery, fast swimming pancakes inhabit waterways with fast currents and soft, sandy, or muddy bottoms. I guess rocks and gravel are hard on their soft undersides. I know my tender feet can handle being outside without decent shoes!

Spiny Softshell turtles are grey, olive, or brown with darker spots, or circles on the carapace. These turtles are called spiny because of the ridge of fleshy lumps at the front of the shell. 

These turtles have very webbed feet, long front claws, and narrow, pointed heads that end in an extended snout. In shallow waters, these turtles bury themselves in the sand and use their long neck and tubed noses to stretch to the surface for air without coming out of their hiding spot.

On land, these turtles don’t have much protection from predators. Bears, cougars, and other large mammals may feed on turtles, so Softshell turtles have learned to run very quickly. They will also use those long, sharp claws to defend themselves, and they will try to bite anything they can get their scissor-like beak on.

So, if you see them out on the land, it’s best to leave them alone. If not, you might end up visiting Montana’s emergency room to get stitches and antibiotics. 

The Western Spiny Softshell turtle is mostly carnivorous. They will eat fish, insects, mollusks, crayfish, and other aquatic animals. 

Pond Sliders in Montana

4. Red Eared Slider

Red eared slider turtle (Trachemys Scripta Elegans) basking on a log in a pond
Red eared slider turtle basking on a log in a pond
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta elegans
  • Other Names: Red-eared Terrapin, Water Slider turtle
  • Adult Size: 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm)
  • Lifespan: 20 to 40 years
  • Average Price Range: $15 to $50

Did you guess Red Eared Sliders earlier? These turtles are incredibly adaptive and quickly become invasive in most areas when they either escape or are released into the wild. 

Red Eared Sliders are probably the most popular pet turtle and have been for many decades. Unfortunately, because of how big they can grow, the long lifespan, and how often you need to clean their tanks, many are released into the wild by unprepared owners. This species of turtle is quite hardy and adaptable, and can quickly become established in new environments. 

Because of the Red Eared Sliders’ propensity to become invasive, Montana banned the sale of these turtles in 2014. The state hopes that this species will eventually perish because of the cold, harsh winters, and they will be eliminated before harming native turtle species.

You can recognize Red Eared Sliders by the red oval or patches behind their eyes. They also have olive green shells with bright markings, though these patterns fade over time.

They also have dark brown to black skin and scales with yellow stripes along the head, neck, and limbs. The plastron is tan to yellow with black or dark brown smudges.

These turtles prefer slow moving waters such as ponds, rivers, lakes, and streams, but can survive in nearly any waterway. When basking, they will crowd out other species of turtles, or climb on top of each other if they are all the same species.

Red Eared Sliders are omnivorous and will eat insects, mollusks, fish, tadpoles, small crustaceans, and aquatic vegetation. 


Are turtles legal in Montana?

You can own most species of turtle in Montana as long as you obtain them from reputable breeders. It’s not right to take turtles from their wild habitat to keep them as a pet. Look for turtles from rescues or purchase captive bred turtles instead.

The only turtle that you can’t own in Montana is the Red Eared Slider.

What do turtles do in the winter in Montana?

Turtles in Montana hibernate to survive the harsh winters. Most will find a place in the water where they will be safe and are able to get air or dig a burrow to survive the freezing temperatures. When the landscape finally thaws, these turtles emerge, feed, and mate to continue their bloodline.

Wrapping up

Well, that’s the end of our short list of turtles found in Montana. We went over the three native species; Western Painted turtles, Common Snapping turtles, and Western Spiny Softshells. We’ve also described Montana’s non-native and potentially invasive Red-eared Sliders.

We hope you enjoyed this list! If you did, please take a few seconds to comment below or discuss Montana’s native turtles with other herp enthusiasts!

Other nearby states

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