Bill would sharply curtail turtle harvesting for profit

By: - February 1, 2023 7:46 am

A painted turtle (courtesy of USGS)

Minnesota is one of just a handful of states allowing wild turtles to be harvested, sold and exported for profit. 

But that could change this year if the DFL-controlled Legislature succeeds in passing a total ban on the practice that’s been decades in the making. 

“Turtles are one of the most vulnerable species in our state of Minnesota,” said Sen. Foung Hawj, chair of the Committee on Climate, Environment & Legacy and a lead author on the bill, during a Tuesday hearing. “Our turtle population can no longer sustain the pressure of commercial harvesting,” said Hawj, a St. Paul Democat. A companion bill is also in the works in the House.

Just 15 states allow commercial turtle harvesting, according to testimony prepared by Christopher Smith of the Minnesota Herpetological Society. And of those, Minnesota is one of six that allow unrestricted commercial harvest, which places no limits on the number of turtles a business can remove from the wild.

That harvesting is putting a strain on turtle populations in Minnesota, according to the Department of Natural Resources, which supports the bill. During testimony for a similar bill last year, DNR Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier said commercial harvesting operations are contributing to the “grave danger” facing the state’s turtle populations, particularly of painted and snapping turtles.

Studies, including one conducted in Minnesota, have found that turtle populations are lower in lakes that have been harvested recently. The animals are especially vulnerable to population pressure from harvesting because they take many years to mature and reproduce – in the case of snapping turtles, for instance, a female may take 15 or more years to lay her first clutch of eggs. 

“Turtles must live a long time” in order to successfully reproduce, Smith said during testimony. “Absent that, turtle populations will decline.”

Minnesota put a moratorium on new turtle harvesting licenses in the early 2000s, working under the assumption that the practice would gradually end as the existing licensees wound down their businesses. Today just 19 license holders remain, but the annual number of turtles they’ve harvested has steadily increased as the licensees have taken more turtles each year. 

In 2021, for instance, the 19 licensees captured and sold roughly 10,000 painted turtles, a number that’s tripled since the mid-2000s, according to DNR data compiled by Smith. Data on who’s buying those turtles doesn’t exist, but Smith said via email: “We assume most are exported out of Minnesota and that some likely end up overseas.”

Minnesota harvesters are upping their takes because recent moves to outlaw the practice by other states — like Florida and Missouri — have made it more profitable for them to do so, Smith said. Asia in particular remains a lucrative market for the wild turtle trade, with the animals being used in food and medicine as well as for pets. 

The bill would still allow individuals to capture limited numbers of turtles under a “recreational” license, similar to a typical fishing or hunting license. 

Republicans on the committee expressed some skepticism about the legislation. Sen. Nathan Wesenberg, R-Little Falls, raised concerns about the proposed $25 fee for a recreational license. Sen. Steve Green, R-Fosston, noted that he observed several snapping turtles laying eggs in his northern Minnesota driveway every year, and that solid data on turtle population trends in Minnesota is lacking. 

“Collection and sale of wild turtles for pets, meat, and traditional Asian medicines is one of the top threats contributing to decline and extinction of wild turtle populations across the world,” wrote the Center for Biological Diversity in support of the Minnesota bill. “This bill would stop a very small number of for-profit turtle traffickers from depleting the state’s great wild heritage.”

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.