Rocky students lead the way in Montana turtle study

Six years ago, during a walk along the Yellowstone River, I caught a glimpse of something I had never seen before. It was obviously a turtle, but with a shell unlike any I had ever seen before — a shell that looked like a pancake.

One second this beautiful creature was there, sunning itself on a muddy beach, and then the next all I saw were ripples where it slid into the water to escape me. I found out later it was a spiny softshell turtle – a shy, elusive reptile that is found in the river systems of southeast Montana and about which wildlife biologists know little.

Kayhan Ostovar, an associate professor of environmental science and fish and wildlife conservation at Rocky Mountain College, and his students are trying to do something about that.

After my first encounter with the softshell turtle I became interested in learning more. In truth, it became something of an obsession. When I found out about the research Ostovar was leading, I jumped at the chance to tag along on one of his field research days; I wanted to see a spiny softshell turtle close up.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that I would be able to go on two trips; one to find the spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) and one to find the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), both species of concern in Montana. I joined Ostovar and two of his students who serve as his lead research assistants, Andhrea Massey and Gabriel Aponte, in the field while they checked turtle traps they set along the Yellowstone River and surrounding prairie streams.

Massey and Aponte told me that not much is known about either species, but they are working to change that. Ostovar and his students have become the leading turtle experts in the state. They are working to collect data that no one has collected before. Prior to their research, in fact, there was no good data on these turtles. So there has been no way of knowing how things like roads, subdivisions, poor water quality or even incidents like the Yellowstone oil spill have affected the species.

Three years ago, Ostovar set out to change that. He began a formal research project with the support of the Yellowstone River Research Center (YRRC) at Rocky Mountain College, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and numerous local foundations and businesses.

Ostovar and his students are trying to answer some basic question regarding the spiny softshell and snapping turtle populations on the Musselshell, Clarks Fork, Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers and surrounding prairie streams:

♦ What are the populations along the Yellowstone River and how might climate change affect their demographics and continued survival?
♦ How does the fragmentation of habitat impact their population?
♦ What are the heavy metal contaminant loads and are there differences in these levels based on where the turtles live?
♦ What factors might be affecting the health of the species, including instream flow, water quality, and invasive plant species on nesting beaches?

Ostovar, Massey and Aponte hope the research will help educate people about the presence and importance of these turtles and they hope that people in Billings and surrounding community will begin to watch out for snapping turtles and spiny softshell turtles.

“Let us know where and when you see them,” Ostovar said. “And if you find them, don’t move them to places where you think they should be. Just let them be.”

I was so excited to be able to take photos of these amazing creatures and the students from Rocky Mountain College. This photo essay will take you through both field days, and the captions will explain the research they are doing in more detail.

And, if you see a spiny softshell or snapping turtle, please consider contacting Ostovar and his students at Rocky Mountain College. You can call Ostovar at 657-1175 or write to him at

Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth-generation Montanan, goat and sheep rancher, freelance photographer and writer who lives and works along the Yellowstone River near Billings. She managed the Tribal Lands Partnerships Program for the National Wildlife Federation for 10 years. You can see more of her photos And do check out her blog, East of Billings.

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