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Turtles in Montana

There are only three species of native turtles in Montana, as well as one introduced non-native species. Montana might be a large state, but it’s also one of the colder northwestern states, which isn’t ideal for supporting a large variety of turtle species.

Thankfully, pet turtles are legal in Montana and several commonly kept species can be owned without a permit. Montana’s native species are also legal to keep. But Red-eared Sliders – which have been accidentally introduced and are not native – cannot be bought or sold anymore.

If you’re thinking about obtaining one of Montana’s native turtles as a pet or buying a different species, we urge you to try and adopt a turtle from local animal shelters if at all possible. Failing that, aim to purchase captive-bred specimens from registered breeders.

While Montana’s laws don’t prohibit the capture of wild turtles, this practice still harms native populations. Wild-caught turtles are also much less likely to enjoy a long, healthy life in captivity than captive-bred specimens.

Although this is a short list, it can still be a useful herping guide when you’re out in the field. So let’s dive into the native turtles in Montana.

Turtles in Montana

1. Western Painted Turtle

chrysemys picta belli (western painted turtle)
chrysemys picta belli (western painted turtle)
  • 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

Western Painted turtles are Montana’s most widespread species. They are found throughout the entire state in larger water bodies such as lakes and ponds and are the largest subspecies of Painted turtle. These medium-sized aquatic turtles can sometimes be confused with the non-native Red-eared Slider.

Western Painted turtles have black or dark brown shells that usually have colored edging ranging from yellow to red. Their faces also have yellow stripes stretching down the skin. Western Painted turtles have stunning orange to red plastrons that boast swirling patterns of colors such as blue, green, and red.

Painted turtles are a diurnal species that mainly stay near the water, often basking on nearby logs. In the colder months in Montana, Western Painted turtles may hibernate in the depths of their ponds or other watery habitats. These turtles are omnivores and mainly eat insects and aquatic vegetation.

2. Common Snapping Turtle

Common Snapping turtle (Chelydra Serpentina) found sitting in the woods in alabama
Common Snapping turtle (Chelydra Serpentina) found sitting in the woods
  • 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

The largest turtle species found in Montana, Common Snapping turtles are imposing reptiles that look as if they’ve time-traveled from the Jurassic Period. These fully aquatic turtles are found in the eastern half of Montana, although some scattered pockets of non-native specimens have been found in some western areas.

Common Snapping turtles are famous for their intimidating appearance, with powerful hooked beaks, strong claws, and long tails covered with saw-toothed spines. Their dark brown or green shells are thick and tough and carry three distinctive ridges down the center.

Common Snapping turtles prefer larger bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. In these habitats, they are apex predators and eat an omnivorous diet. They usually consume amphibians, fish, insects, mollusks, smaller turtles, and even waterbirds if they can get close enough. They may also occasionally eat aquatic vegetation.

3. Western Spiny Softshell Turtle

Adult Female Western Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera hartwegi)
Adult Female Western Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera hartwegi)
  • 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

Western Spiny Softshells are Montana’s third and final native species. These semi-aquatic turtles inhabit waterways with faster currents such as rivers and streams and can be found in Montana’s major rivers. They require specialized sandbars in their habitats for nesting and like sandy or stony river bottoms where they can burrow to wait for prey.

Western Spiny Softshells have distinctive brown pancake-shaped shells that lack a hard carapace. Male Softshells have a rough feel, almost like sandpaper, while females have smooth shells. A series of dark or black spots can be seen on their shells along with a row of spiny protrusions along the upper edge of the carapace. Spiny Softshells also have long, tapered beaks which act like snorkels while they’re buried in the sand.

These Spiny Softshells survive on a largely carnivorous diet of crustaceans, small fish, insects, and mollusks. The Softshell will bury itself in the sand and wait for prey to swim by before lunging forwards and grabbing the food in their mouths. You might also see Western Spiny Softshells basking on rocks or logs next to the water.

Montana has also become home to a few populations of non-native turtles; Red-eared Sliders that were likely released irresponsibly from captivity. Montana passed laws a few years ago prohibiting the sale and purchase of Red-eared Sliders in an attempt to reduce their spread.

4. Red-eared Slider

Red eared sliders stacked on top of each other (Trachemys scripta elegans)
Red eared sliders stacked on top of each other (Trachemys scripta elegans)
  • 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

Red-eared Sliders have been a popular pet species for decades. Unfortunately, their size and lifespan often mean that they are released unsafely into the wild by unprepared owners. These Sliders are very hardy and can quickly become invasive when overwhelming local turtle species.

There are a few scattered populations of non-native Red-eared Sliders in Montana, and the state has taken steps to limit the spread. Red-eared Sliders thrive in warmer, slow-moving waters in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. They can often be seen basking at the edge of the water.

Red-eared Sliders have olive green shells with swirling yellow and green patterns. Their heads are a darker green with yellow stripes running down their faces and necks. They also have distinctive red elliptical patches just behind their eyes.

Red-eared Sliders are omnivorous, feeding on aquatic insects, small fish, and underwater vegetation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Montana Turtles

Are turtles legal in Montana?

Montana has some pretty relaxed laws when it comes to owning turtles, as most common species are legal in the state. Some species can even be owned without a permit. Most of Montana’s native species can also be obtained without a permit. The only illegal species in Montana in terms of freshwater turtles is the Red-eared Slider.

Are there Snapping turtles in Montana?

Montana is home to native Common Snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). These imposing behemoths are the largest species found in the state and can be encountered across the eastern half of Montana. Common Snapping turtles are at the top of the food chain in their deep aquatic habitats such as lakes and ponds.

What do turtles do in the winter in Montana?

Due to its harsh winters, Montana isn’t an ideal place to live if you’re a turtle. However, Montana’s three native species survive the winter conditions by descending to the warmer depths of the water sources in their habitats. There, they will hibernate for up to six or seven months, barely breathing. They will then reemerge in the warmer months.


Well that’s the end of our list of native turtles in Montana. We’ve covered three native species here; Western Painted turtles, Common Snapping turtles, and Western Spiny Softshells. We’ve also explored Montana’s non-native Red-eared Sliders.

Feel free to use this list as a herping guide while you’re out in the field or as a springboard to deciding whether to obtain one of Montana’s native turtles. Remember to adopt a turtle from a local animal shelter whenever possible.

We hope you enjoyed this list! If you did, please comment down below to discuss Montana’s native turtles with your fellow herp enthusiasts!

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