Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, November 22, 2021


Jason Totoiu, Center for Biological Diversity, (561) 568-6740,
Cynthia Sarthou, Healthy Gulf, (504) 525-1528 x 202

Pearl River Map Turtles Proposed for Endangered Species Act Protection in Mississippi, Louisiana

Four Similar Southeastern Turtle Species Proposed for Protection From Poaching, Trade

NEW ORLEANS— As the result of a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to protect Pearl River map turtles as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In the case of Pascagoula River map turtles, which the Center also sued to protect, the agency declined to give them the full protection of the Act, which would have provided protections for their habitat. Instead, it gave them weaker protections, along with three other species of map turtles — Alabama, Escambia and Barbour’s — from poaching and commercial harvest due to their “similarity of appearance” to Pearl River turtles.

The turtles are found in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, the Florida panhandle and southern Georgia.

In July 2020 the Service agreed to decide on federal protection for Pearl River and Pascagoula turtles by Oct. 29, 2021. That agreement resolved a January 2020 suit that challenged the agency’s failure to make a timely initial finding on the Center’s 2010 petition to protect the turtles under the Endangered Species Act.

“Federal protection for the beautiful Pearl River map turtle is long overdue,” said Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney at the Center. “After a decade of inaction by the Fish and Wildlife Service, these turtles have managed to hang on in just a fraction of their historic range. While it’s disappointing the Service isn’t proposing endangered species protections for both species, I’m hopeful that we can finally turn a corner and begin to recover these lovely turtles and the waterways they once thrived in.”

Map turtles serve as indicators of river health; poor water quality can devastate their populations. In addition to habitat loss and degradation from dams, floodplain clearing and river channelization, other threats include the harvest of turtles for sale in food and medicinal markets and collection for the pet trade. The Pearl River map turtle is particularly threatened by a proposal to build a new dam above Jackson, Mississippi called the One Lake Project.

“We’re glad that the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally moving to protect these two handsome turtles,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf. “These turtles are barely hanging on in waterways that are very degraded. Without federal protection they might not survive.”

Map turtles are often called “sawbacks” for the ridges along their backs that can form small spikes. Pearl River map turtles can live up to 30 years in the wild and used to be considered the same species as Pascagoula map turtles; recently scientists have determined the two are separate species. The Pearl River map turtle is only found in creeks and rivers within the Pearl River drainage in Mississippi and Louisiana, while the Pascagoula has a relatively small range in its namesake river system in Mississippi.

Today’s announcement follows similar proposals made this year to protect two species of alligator snapping turtles native to the Southeast.

Earlier this month the Service proposed to protect alligator snapping turtles as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. That turtle has a broader range and a larger population, though, like the Pearl River map turtle, it faces serious threats from river degradation, poaching and climate change.

“Given the small range and population numbers of the Pearl River map turtle, it probably should have been proposed for endangered status,” said Totoiu. “We’ll watch the process closely and fight to ensure the species has all the protection it needs.”

Pearl River map turtle. Photo courtesy of Cris Hagen, University of Georgia, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Healthy Gulf began in 1994 with a mission to unite and empower people to protect the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico for future generations.

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