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Federal service looking into turtle rules, regulations

Posted on November 8, 2012

Columbus — Softshell turtles are under review for possible protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We are evaluating whether softshell turtles should be added to Appendix III, the lowest level of protection under CITES, (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species),” said Bruce Weissgold, a USFWS specialist in the division of management authority.

The evaluation process began as a result of a workshop on freshwater turtles held in St. Louis in 2010, Weissgold said. The USFWS continues to get feedback from state natural resource agencies as well as conservation groups and other stakeholders, he said.

In 2011, the Ohio DNR instituted rules restricting the harvest of softshell and snapping turtles to 13 inches or larger. The season for turtles runs July 1-April 30. Prior to the new rules, there were no restrictions on the size of harvested soft shell turtles and snappers in Ohio.

“This was not taken lightly,” said Carolyn Caldwell, program administrator of the Ohio Division of Wildlife's management and research group. “"We would not have taken this much time to investigate the biology of the species and what other states were doing if we were not interested in making it a valuable tool to ensure sustainability. A lot of thought went into to it. We are trying to ensure the sustainability of the turtle species.”

Across the lower 48 states,“there has been a significant push to take a closer look at the turtle population,” Caldwell said, not just for consumption but for the domestic and international pet trade.

Caldwell said the new rules protect the most vigorous turtle producers, noting they reach sexual maturity between seven and 10 years of age.

“We have tried to be reasonable so folks can use the resource,” Caldwell said.

Since the size restriction went into effect, there has been only one case in which a fisherman was cited for possessing an undersized turtle, said Ron Ollis, DOW law enforcement program manager. Four other cases involved trapping turtles with illegal devices, he said.

The new regulations are a step in the right direction, according to Willem Roosenburg, a turtle biologist and associate professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

“I hope that the DNR continues to evaluate and improve the management of its turtle populations,” he said.

Roosenburg said adjustments to the turtle trapping season protects females when they were nesting and most vulnerable for capture. Typically, turtles in the Midwest and Northeast begin nesting in May through the middle and end of June, he said.

As for the size limitation on softshell and snappers, Roosenburg believes the restriction may not have as much of an affect on softshell turtles because males are smaller than females and there could be more harvest pressure on the larger females.

“The goal of any conservation/ management strategy should be to reduce mortality of adults, particularly females,” Roosenburg wrote in an e-mail.

Additionally, snapping turtles can command lucrative prices in other states, making it worthwhile for Ohio turtle trappers to take their catch to other states, according to Roosenburg. But it is problematic, he wrote, because there are no records of how many animals are caught each year in Ohio, how many are sold commercially, and the amount of export.

“Without these data, it becomes very difficult for the DNR to manage these species effectively,” he wrote.

Longtime turtle trapper Dale Hermiller of Putnam County is critical of the new size restrictions for turtle trappers.

Hermiller has hunted turtles for 30 years and said he can recall only finding one turtle of about 15 inches in his traps.

“The big ones just aren’t out there,” he said.

He and his brother this summer caught 10 turtles in eight traps during a three-day stretch, but none were over 13 inches. Most were 10 to 12 inches and up to 15 pounds, but they could not keep them, he said.

“There's not that many of us still trapping turtles,” Hermiller said, adding that the new size restrictions may just end turtle trapping in Ohio, he said.