Proposed listing of the alligator snapping turtle under the Endangered Species ActNovember 8, 2021
What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?
The Service is announcing the proposed listing of the alligator snapping turtle as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and is also proposing a Section 4(d) rule to provide for its conservation.
What is the alligator snapping turtle?
Known from 14 different states across the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest, the alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America. They get their name from large, powerful jaws that can snap a broom handle in half and shells that resemble the rough, ridged skin of an alligator. Adult males can weigh up to 249 pounds; females are much smaller.
Where does this turtle live?
Alligator snapping turtles are found in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. They are also considered rare in Kansas and Indiana and may even be functionally extirpated from those states. They are generally found in large rivers and major tributaries; however, they are also found in a variety of small streams, bayous, canals, swamps, lakes, reservoirs, and ponds.
Why is the Service proposing a threatened listing for the alligator snapping turtle?
The ESA describes two categories of species that need protection: threatened and endangered. An endangered animal or plant is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range; a threatened animal or plant is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
After careful examination of the turtle’s past, present, and projected future conditions, the Service has determined it meets the definition of a threatened species under the ESA.
The turtle is not being listed as endangered because its current condition still provides sufficient resiliency, redundancy, and representation such that it is not currently at risk of extinction.
What does the Service mean by “foreseeable future?”
Foreseeable future is described on a case-by-case basis using the best available data and examines considerations such as a species’ life-history characteristics, threat projection timeframes, and environmental variability. In this case, foreseeable future for the alligator snapping turtle is 50 years.
How did the Service arrive at this finding?
The Service conducted a thorough review of the alligator snapping turtle via a species status assessment (SSA). The SSA report, produced with input from many partners, underwent independent peer and partner review. It provides a biological risk assessment using the best available scientific and commercial information on threats to a species and evaluates a species’ current condition. The SSA also forecasts a species’ future status under varying scenarios and forms the foundational basis for a species’ recovery plan, should it become listed.
The SSA conducted for the alligator snapping turtle showed its populations are in decline and expected to continue to decline into the foreseeable future. The SSA report for the turtle is available at https://ecos.fws.gov/ServCat/ (search for alligator snapping turtle) and https://www.regulations.gov/ (search for Docket FWS–R4–ES–2021–0115).
What are the threats to the turtle?
Factors affecting the future viability of the turtle include legal and illegal harvest, drowning as a result of by-catch from recreational and commercial fishing, hook ingestion, habitat alteration and nest predation. Historically, commercial and recreational harvest in the 20th century resulted in significant declines to many alligator snapping turtle populations. Commercial harvesting depleted populations in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Alabama and is now prohibited in all states within its range. Recreational harvest of alligator snapping turtles is prohibited in every state except for Louisiana and Mississippi. If the species is listed as threatened, no harvest would be allowed within the species’ range.
Although restrictions have decreased the number of alligator snapping turtles being harvested, populations have not increased in response. This is likely due to the turtle’s relatively low reproductive output, delayed maturity, and long generation times.
How will ESA protections benefit these turtles?
Listing under the ESA provides immediate protection, promotes recovery, and generates greater public awareness about the threats and conservation opportunities. It also inspires actions by diverse partners, including federal, state, Tribal and local agencies, industry, conservation groups, and individuals.
Targeted protections: Under the ESA, federal agencies must ensure actions they approve, fund or carry out do not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat. In addition, the ESA protects listed species and their habitats by prohibiting “take” and interstate or international trade in listed species (including their parts and products), except under federal permit. Take is defined by the ESA as, “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Harm is defined as, “an act which actually kills or injures wildlife.” Such an act may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering.
Recovery efforts: The ESA also requires the Service to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation of threatened and endangered species. Recovery plans outline actions that are needed to improve the species’ status so they no longer require protection under the ESA. The Service develops and implements these plans in partnership with species experts, federal, state and local agencies, Tribes, non-governmental organizations, academia, and other stakeholders.
Is the Service designating critical habitat for the turtle?
The Service determined that designation of critical habitat for the alligator snapping turtle may be prudent but is not determinable at this time. In addition to seeking sufficient information to perform the required analyses for proposing critical habitat, the Service is also seeking comment on whether designation of critical habitat would contribute to further declines of the species by providing information on the turtles’ locations, making them vulnerable to take.
What is the 4(d) rule that is being proposed for the species?
The proposed 4(d) rule provides for alligator snapping turtle conservation by prohibiting the following intentional take activities, except as otherwise authorized or permitted: importing, exporting or possession and other acts resulting in unlawfully taken specimens from any source; delivering, receiving, transporting, or shipping wild caught individuals in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of commercial activity; and selling or offering for sale wild caught individuals in interstate or foreign commerce.
This 4(d) rule further provides for alligator snapping turtle conservation by prohibiting the following take activities that are incidental to otherwise lawful actions, except as otherwise authorized or permitted: take resulting from commercial or recreational fishing bycatch and take resulting from habitat alteration and/or activities that reduce the amount of or access to habitat, especially nesting habitat for female turtles.
The following activities are excepted from the prohibitions:
- Conduct activities as authorized by a permit issued under §17.32.
- Take, as set forth at § 17.21(c)(2) through (c)(4) for endangered wildlife.
- Take, as set forth at § 17.31(b).
- Turtle farming with permitted brood stock and wild caught brood stock captured prior to effective date of species listing using permitted reptilian husbandry practices in accordance with state regulations.
- Captive breeding for conservation efforts, including head-start programs, is also excepted from prohibitions.
- Incidental take exceptions also include: construction, operation, and maintenance activities that apply to industry and/or state-approved best management practices for construction, pesticide and herbicide application that follow the chemical label and appropriate application rates, silviculture practices and forest management activities that use state-approved best management practices, and maintenance dredging activities that remain in the previously disturbed portion of a maintained channel.
- Additional exceptions will allow for some activities related to captive-bred turtles and include the take; export; import; delivery, receipt, carrying, transport or shipment in interstate or foreign commerce, in the course of a commercial activity. It also includes the selling or offering for sale in interstate or foreign commerce specimens that meet the definitions of “captive-bred” or “bred in captivity.”
What conservation efforts are currently being undertaken for the alligator snapping turtle?
Ongoing conservation measures include captive rearing and release, as well as various efforts to restore and improve habitat. Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Oklahoma initiated a captive breeding program in 1999 to produce head-started alligator snapping turtles for reintroduction. The Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery in Louisiana also has recently begun a head-start program for the same purpose. Nachitoches National Fish Hatchery was also recently involved in the repatriation of 21 adult and six juvenile alligator snapping turtles back into East Texas after being seized in an illegal trafficking attempt.
Alligator snapping turtle at Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery
The species is also included in Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Why haven’t harvest restrictions helped populations rebound?
Although regulatory harvest restrictions have decreased the number of alligator snapping turtles being harvested, populations have not necessarily increased in response. This lag in population response is likely due to the species’ demographics. For example, the species is long-lived with delayed maturity (11-21 years), has long generation times (mean 31.2 years), and they have a relatively low reproductive output with females only laying, on average, 28 eggs per year.
How will commercial and recreational fishing be affected?
The Service’s proposed 4(d) rule, which would prohibit all forms of intentional take, including those resulting from interstate and international trade, also addresses prohibitions and exceptions for incidental take for otherwise lawful activities with a focus on implementing existing best management practices for instream work and impacts to riparian areas.
A key feature of the draft rule is to solicit public comment on developing turtle exclusion or escape devices for hoop nets and modified techniques for trot lines in order to address bycatch from those particular types of commercial and recreational fishing gear, as well as a phased approach for implementing any gear modifications.
Most forms of recreational fishing are unlikely to result in catch of alligator snapping turtles (e.g., fishing associated with rod and reel set ups, especially if hooks are small and not left in the water for multiple hours). If an alligator snapping turtle is incidentally hooked or entangled during a fishing activity, it is recommended to avoid the mouth and head area. Then cut the line in order to free an entangled or hooked turtle, given the risk of injury and human endangerment in attempting to remove the hook or line.
The Service plans to work with states to address fishing regulations that will provide a benefit to the conservation of the alligator snapping turtle. This may include modifications to fishing gear and requirements to label and check lines and traps to reduce bycatch or reporting provisions for angler encounters.
How will parts or animals used for ceremonial activities by recognized Native American Tribes be affected?
Use of alligator snapping turtle parts for cultural significance or use is not currently covered by the proposed 4(d) rule. We are seeking additional information on uses in this context and hope to work with Tribes to ensure ceremonial activity is unaffected.
How will export of legally farmed animals be affected?
Currently, nearly all farmed alligator snapping turtles exported from the U.S. are labeled “wild-caught” under CITES requirements because their lineages were derived from wild-caught individuals. In the near future, the Service will need to establish a mechanism to certify that farmed individuals originate from permitted farms. It is our intent that this activity be allowed to continue as it can alleviate pressure on the capture and poaching of wild individuals.
How can the public comment on this proposal?
The Service will accept comments received or postmarked on or before January 10, 2022. Comments submitted electronically using the Federal eRulemaking Portal (see ADDRESSES, below) must be received by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on the closing date.
ADDRESSES: You may submit comments by one of the following methods:
(1) Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS–R4–ES–2021–0115, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then, click on the Search button. On the resulting page, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, check the Proposed Rule box to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
(2) By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2021–0115, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: PRB/3W, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.
We request that you send comments only by the methods described above. We will post all comments on http://www.regulations.gov. This generally means that we will post any personal information you provide us.
The Service has scheduled a virtual public meeting and hearing on December 7, 2021 from 6:00 – 8:30p.m. CT (7:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET) via the Zoom online video platform and via teleconference. This virtual public meeting and hearing is intended to give the public an opportunity to learn more about the proposed listing of the alligator snapping turtle and an opportunity to comment on the proposal. Registration is required and can be done online at: https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/reptiles/alligator-spanning-turtle/#virtual-meeting-and-hearing.
The use of a virtual public hearing is consistent with our regulations at 50 CFR 424.16(c)(3).
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Brigette Firmin, Deputy Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana Ecological Services Field Office, 200 Dulles Drive, Lafayette, LA 70506; telephone 337–291–3108. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339.
What information is the Service specifically seeking?
In addition to providing comments on the proposed rule, the Service is particularly seeking comments concerning the species’ biology, range, and population trends. Information on recreational or commercial fishing impacts, poaching, predation rates, and trade is also being sought in preparation of any final rule for the species.
In addition to seeking sufficient information to perform the required analyses for proposing critical habitat, the Service is also seeking comment on whether designation of critical habitat would contribute to further declines of the species by providing information on the turtles’ locations, making them vulnerable to take.
The complete list of information being sought on the species can be found in the “Information Requested” section of the proposed rule.
What do I do if I suspect someone is illegally removing live alligator snapping turtles, or any other species from the wild?
If you suspect someone is illegally removing live alligator snapping turtles, or any other species, please call the Service’s wildlife trafficking tips line at 1-844-FWS-TIPS (397-8477) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You might be eligible for a financial reward if your tip helps solve a case. More information on how to report wildlife crime is available at the link below: