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Game and Fish ponders banning turtle harvest

Suspends licensing on importing venomous snakes.

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BEING SNAPPED UP: Snapping turtles are just one of 11 species being taken from the wild in Arkansas.
  • BEING SNAPPED UP: Snapping turtles are just one of 11 species being taken from the wild in Arkansas.

At the urging of conservation groups, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has sought public comment on whether it should ban the commercial trapping of freshwater turtles. States around Arkansas — Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi — either limit or have banned trapping altogether. In Arkansas, commercial trappers are allowed to take an unlimited number of 14 species/subspecies of turtles from the wild. (However, two of those species aren't found in Arkansas and one does not survive shipping and handling and is not harvested, reducing the number of harvested species to 11.)

The commission included a question on the ban in an April survey seeking public comment on changes to state fishing regulations. The survey ended in May, and results will be presented to the commission at its July 19 meeting.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the agency to consider the ban in August 2017. Signing on to the petition were the Arkansas Sierra Club, the Arkansas Watertrails Partnership, the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas, the Environmental Resources Center and two individuals. The petition cited declines in turtle populations from other factors — pollution, habitat loss, car strikes and incidental takes from fisheries — and said commercial harvesting was contributing to the decimation of populations.

On June 20, dozens of scientist members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature sent a letter to the commission supporting the ban. The letter cited Arkansas trappers' figures that said more than 120,000 turtles were harvested between 2014 and 2016 from Arkansas, most of them large and sexually mature.

Keith Stephens, communications division chief for Game and Fish, said data from years 2004-17 showed 1.3 million turtles were taken from the wild in Arkansas.

Elise Bennett of the Center for Biological Diversity, who met with Game and Fish officials and trappers two weeks ago to talk about the issue, said she was told that it's likely only 60 percent of the take is being reported, so that the harvest numbers are likely much higher.

The problem with harvesting turtles is that it's not sustainable. Turtles, because they have few predators, are slow to mature, and the females lay eggs only once a year. There are many predators of eggs and hatchlings, so only a few survive predators and grow into mature, breeding individuals.

For example, because of their slow reproduction rate and egg/hatchling predation, snapping turtle populations could decline by half if only 10 percent were taken over a 15-year period, a Missouri study shows, Bennett said.

Turtles "just cannot withstand any source of removal. We're just losing them," said Janine Perlman, one of the signatories of the IUCN letter and a comparative nutritional biochemist and wildlife rehabilitator in Alexander.

Missouri banned all commercial harvesting of turtles this year, and Alabama and Florida also have bans. Other Southeastern states impose limits, including Georgia and South Carolina. Texas bans all commercial harvests on public waters and is considering expanding that to private waters.

Arkansas does ban the commercial taking of three species: alligator snappers (Macrochelys temminckii), box turtles (Terrapene spp.) and the chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia).

While Game and Fish has gathered information on turtle harvests, it has not been able to do population studies to determine the extent of the threat to the species that may be harvested. Bennett, however, is particularly concerned about the threat to the razorback musk turtle, because its harvest was recently banned in Louisiana, and turtle trappers there will no doubt look to Arkansas.

Most of the turtles taken are sliders, which go to the pet trade. Others are being exported to China, Bennett said, where they are used both for breeding and traditional medicine. Male turtles are canned for food.

Game and Fish spokesman Stephens said of the number of people who responded to the fisheries survey, 34 percent supported a ban, 37 percent opposed it and 29 percent had no opinion.

Turtle harvest licenses have declined sharply since 2007. That year, there were 146 turtle harvester and dealer permits, Stephens said. There were only 35 permits issued in 2017, only six of which reported harvesting turtles.

In any case, a ban on commercial harvest isn't imminent. In an email, Stephens wrote, "We don't have enough current data on overall populations to propose such a ban, but if it appears to be a significant concern with Arkansans, then we will definitely begin devoting resources to look into the status of those species further. If it was determined from the research that it is detrimental to the population of those species, then biologists would then come to the commission with proposed regulation changes, which would then be submitted for public review as well."

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If you were planning on importing, breeding or selling venomous snakes anytime soon, don't. At its June 21 meeting, the commission decided to suspend its Wildlife Importation and Wildlife Breeder/Dealer permits for venomous or poisonous wildlife species for 120 days.

Game and Fish spokesman Randy Zellers said the suspension comes as the agency is revising its caging requirements for captive wildlife. The suspension does not affect persons already in possession of exotic or venomous species. Nor does it apply to people collecting native venomous species: If someone catches a copperhead and wants to keep it, "I wouldn't advise it, but it's not illegal," Zellers said. With the exception of birds, bats, alligator snapping turtles, ornate box turtles, hellbenders, Ouachita streambed salamanders, collared lizards and cave-dwelling or endangered species, people may hand-catch and keep up to six animals of native nongame wildlife species.

"We do have caging requirements for large carnivores and things like that, but nothing for the poisonous or venomous animals that are coming over," Zellers said.

Rattlesnake researcher Dr. Steven Beaupre, who is an ex-officio member of the commission, advised commissioners that the University of Arkansas, where Beaupre is a biology professor, must meet certain standards in its facilities for venomous or poisonous creatures "to prevent escapes or mishandling that could cause a dangerous situation." Beaupre has often been called by public safety officers to help remove venomous snakes from people's homes.

In what might be the weirdest story having to do with imported snakes in Arkansas, in 2004, Garrick Wales of Scotland, U.K., was found dead in a rental car at the Little Rock Regional Airport after receiving a shipment of four venomous snakes: a 14-inch twig snake, a 6-foot green mamba, a 4-foot black mamba and a 5-foot forest cobra in a wooden box. The state medical examiner confirmed he'd died of snakebite, though he didn't identify which snake bit Wales. (Oddly, the box of snakes was not in the car; a truck driver found the box about a half-mile from the car.) Arkansas has required importation permits since 2001; Wales had no permit.

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