Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, May 11, 2017

Contact:  Collette Adkins, Center for Biological Diversity, (651) 955-3821,
Michael Beilfuss, Oklahoma Chapter Sierra Club, (979) 218-8941,
Ed Brocksmith, Save the Illinois River, (918) 284-9440,
Rebecca Jim, Local Environmental Action Demanded, (918) 256-5269,

Ban Sought on Commercial Wild Turtle Trapping in Oklahoma

Unlimited Numbers Can Now Be Caught, Sold

OKLAHOMA CITY— The Center for Biological Diversity and several Oklahoma-based environmental organizations petitioned the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation today to end commercial collection of the state's wild turtles, which are critical to the health of freshwater ecosystems. Turtle trappers can now legally collect unlimited numbers of eight turtle species from waterways on private lands to sell domestically or export for Asian food and medicinal markets. 

“Turtle trappers shouldn't be allowed to pad their pocketbooks by putting the state's precious wildlife at risk,” said Collette Adkins, the Center biologist and senior attorney who authored the petition. “For the sake of our native turtles and all of us who care about them, Oklahoma has to rein in exploitative turtle trapping.”

Commercial traders bought nearly 1 million wild turtles from Oklahoma between 1994 and 2014, according to reports submitted by turtle buyers to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Asian food and medicinal markets drive most of the trade. Because turtles accumulate toxins from prey in their bodies and burrow into contaminated sediment, their meat is often laced with mercury, PCBs and pesticides, posing a health risk. Adult turtles are also taken from the wild to breed hatchlings for the international pet trade.

Scientists have repeatedly documented that freshwater turtles cannot sustain any significant level of wild collection without population declines. For example, a 2011 Oklahoma study showed a significant reduction, in comparison to baseline data from 1997-1999, in “catch per unit of effort,” an index of turtle abundance, across eastern Oklahoma for the three turtle species primarily targeted by commercial trappers: common snapping turtles, softshells and red-eared sliders.

“Commercial trapping is devastating to turtle populations that are already suffering from multiple other threats, including habitat loss, water pollution and vehicular collisions,” said Michael Beilfuss, executive committee chair for Oklahoma Chapter Sierra Club. “Unless the state bans commercial turtle trapping, Oklahoma's turtle populations will continue to plummet.”

In response to a 2008 Center petition, Oklahoma prohibited commercial collection of turtles from the state's public waters. That prohibition, while an important step, insufficiently protects the state's turtles because approximately 95 percent of the state's land is privately held and therefore open to turtle trapping. And enforcement is difficult because turtle traders can claim that turtles illegally collected from closed public waters were collected from waters on private land.

Today's petition was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oklahoma Chapter Sierra Club, Save the Illinois River and Local Environmental Action Demanded.

As part of a campaign to protect turtles in the United States, the Center has been petitioning states that allow commercial turtle collection to improve their regulations. In 2009 Florida responded by banning almost all commercial turtle collection from public and private waters. In 2012 Georgia approved state rules restricting commercial turtle collection, and Alabama completely banned it. Most recently, in Iowa in March, new regulations setting closed seasons and possession limits for commercial turtle trappers went into effect.

As for states neighboring Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas prohibit commercial turtle collection, and New Mexico strictly regulates it with annual bag limits. In addition, last fall Missouri announced — in response to a Center petition — that it will consider ending unlimited commercial turtle collection through a formal rulemaking proceeding.   

Common snapping turtle

Common snapping turtle photo by Dakota L. This image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.3 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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