ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Following a petition and legal victory from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed protecting the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species.
The large turtle’s habitat faces destruction and degradation from a multitude of factors, including agriculture and urban expansion, logging and mining. Modeling predicts the species will continue to decline over the next 50 years under all scenarios, even if threats were to decrease, with extinction a real possibility.
“After more than a century of exploitation and habitat destruction, these magnificent turtles really need our help,” said Elise Bennett, a Center attorney. “The Endangered Species Act can help lift these iconic southeastern turtles out of their staggering decline and onto the road to recovery.”
In addition to habitat destruction, the turtles face threats from illegal harvest, fishing bycatch, nest predation by predators like raccoons, and climate change. Existing regulations aren’t adequate to protect the animals.
Harvesting turtles is particularly damaging because turtles have low fertility, low egg and hatchling survival, and delayed maturity. This means their survival depends on many adult turtles having many opportunities to mate over a long period of time. Endangered Species Act protection should help stop further illegal harvest.
The Service also proposed a “4(d) Rule” that prohibits the “taking” of Suwannee alligator snapping turtles. That would include harassing, harming, killing and capturing them. Unfortunately the rule provides exceptions for pesticide and herbicide use, certain bridge and dam construction activities, certain forestry operations, and maintenance dredging of existing channels in waterways.
“Because habitat destruction is one of the most significant threats to the alligator snapper, these exceptions could undercut efforts to protect the species,” said Bennett. “We’ll be taking a close look at this rule, as well as the decision to list the turtle as threatened rather than endangered, which allows the rule.”
Built like a tank and often covered in camouflaging algae, this prehistoric-looking freshwater turtle is known for its spiked shell, large claws and strong, beaked jaws.
Alligator snappers spend much of their time underwater, luring prey with their worm-like tongues and occasionally surfacing to breathe.
Historically, the alligator snapping turtle was considered a single species, but more recent research supports splitting off the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle as a new species. The Suwannee snapper is found in its namesake Suwannee River basin in southern Georgia and northern Florida.
The alligator snapping turtle is still under review for Endangered Species Act protections.