Painted turtles may soon be able to bask in the Minnesota sun on logs, rocks and shorelines with one less threat against them.
After trying, unsuccessfully, for nearly 20 years to phase out commercial turtle trapping in Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is asking lawmakers to put an immediate end to the capturing and selling of painted turtles, snapping turtles and spiny softshells. The state has lost thousands of the shelled reptiles in recent years, and wildlife officials say the practice is not sustainable long-term.
The proposed ban recognizes "the grave danger our turtle populations are in," Bob Meier, an assistant DNR commissioner, told lawmakers at a committee hearing. "They are significantly threatened and we need to do whatever we can to protect them."
But the state's few remaining turtle trappers — 19 are left — say they are being blamed for an issue that's been overblown. They say the threat of a ban represents a broken promise that they'd be able to continue using the permits that, in some cases, have been in their families for generations.
"The harvest is so minuscule next to extent of the resource it's not even funny," said Jeff Riedemann, president of the Minnesota Inland Commercial Fisherman's Association and one of the state permit holders.
Minnesota is one of a dozen states that allow commercial turtle trapping, and one of just six with no limit on the number of turtles taken in a season. The animals are sold as both pets and food, to be cooked in stews and soups around the state, country and internationally.
Over the past four years, the total number of turtles taken has held between 6,000 and 11,000 each season, even as the number of trappers has steadily declined. The state does not estimate how many turtles it has. None of the three species allowed to be trapped are on the state's endangered or threatened list.
The problem is wild turtles can take years to reach maturity. Those that do are extremely long-lived and will lay eggs year after year. Most of those eggs are eaten by predators, and most of those that hatch are killed or eaten before the animals can grow large enough to fend for themselves.
But once turtles reach adulthood, they have almost no natural predators. So when those mature turtles are captured, the lakes or water bodies lose the few reproductive adults needed to bring along the next generation, said Christopher Smith of the Minnesota Herpetological Society, a nonprofit that aims to help amphibians and reptiles.
"That's how they evolved to sustain their population," Smith said. "Not only can they live a long time, they have to live a long time. If they don't, their populations decline."
In the early 2000s, Minnesota trappers saw a huge demand for turtles from China, where turtle populations had crashed.
More than 25,000 painted turtles and 5,000 snapping turtles were captured in 2000 and sold.
Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University found that more than 200,000 wild-caught snapping turtles from the United States were exported to Asia each year from 2012 to 2014, compared with fewer than 50,000 in normal years.
That demand has all but disappeared over the past three years, Riedemann said.
"There was a while where China was buying turtles for brood stock, to build up their turtle farms," Riedemann said. "Well, they seem to have all the softshell and snapping turtles they needed for their own farms because nobody is buying them now."
Turtles face far graver threats from road traffic and habitat loss than they do from the handful of remaining trappers, Riedemann said.
In 2002, Minnesota lawmakers agreed to a plan that would slowly phase out the commercial season, forbidding the DNR from issuing new trapping permits and allowing about 100 commercial harvesters to keep their permits and pass them down to their children for one generation.
Since then, the number of harvesters has steadily dwindled. But the numbers of turtles still being harvested each year has surprised the DNR.
"Back in the day, it wasn't estimated that it would take 19 years to get to that point," Meier said.
The proposed ban, introduced by Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center, would still allow individuals to catch and keep up to three turtles.
"So many other states have already banned this that we're getting all this additional pressure," Vang said. "It's exploiting our [turtle] population, in a way."
Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882