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Feds move to protect map turtles native to the South

Map turtles, which survived the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, are dwindling in number due to human-driven pollution, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose adding them to the list of threatened species.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — A proposal to add the Pearl River map turtle to the federal endangered species list was put forth Monday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after two environmental groups sued the agency last year for missing the determination deadline by a decade.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf had also sued to protect Pascagoula map turtles, but the FWS declined to give them the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, ostensibly because they have more habitat and more of their habitat is protected. Instead, the agency has proposed weaker protections for the Pascagoula turtles, along with three other species of map turtles – the Alabama, Escambia and Barbour’s – which will help prevent poaching and commercial harvest due to the similarity in appearance they share with Pearl River turtles, the agency said.  

“North American turtles survived the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, but these two species need help to live through the havoc we’re wrecking on rivers,” Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a July 2020 press release about efforts to protect the Pearl River and Pascagoula River turtles.

Map turtles, which are sometimes called “sawbacks” because of the ridges along their backs that can form small spikes, are medium-sized and can live up to 30 years in the wild. They are found in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, the Florida panhandle, and southern Georgia.

Pearl River and Pascagoula map turtles were once considered the same species, but a recent scientific study split them into two distinct species. The Pearl River map turtle lives in creeks and rivers in the Pearl River drainage in Mississippi and Louisiana, while the Pascagoula turtle has a relatively small range in the Pascagoula River in Mississippi.

The environmentalists' January 2020 lawsuit against the FWS said that by the agency’s own guidelines, a determination on endangered species requires a decision within one year of the original proposal. In this instance, the FWS did not reply to the groups’ original 2010 lawsuit seeking to add the map turtles to the endangered species list.

In response to the latest lawsuit, the agency agreed in July 2020 to decide on federal protections for the Pearl River and Pascagoula map turtles by Oct. 29, 2021. The service finally proposed protection Monday.

“Federal protection for the beautiful Pearl River map turtle is long overdue,” Totoiu said in a statement Monday. “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 are a good indicator of waterway health, according to the environmental groups, as poor water quality can wipe out their populations. In addition to habitat loss and degradation from dams and other water-related projects such as floodplain clearing and river channelization, the turtles are also threatened by harvest for sale as pets or in medicines. In the case of the Pearl River turtle, it faces a threat from 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,” Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf, said in a statement. “These turtles are barely hanging on in waterways that are very degraded. Without federal protection they might not survive.”

A 2019 study placed the entire Pearl River map turtle population at around 21,841 individuals, Totoiu said in an email.

While the FWS proposal is a win for map turtle advocates, Totoiu expressed disappointment that the agency only wants to list the Pearl River map turtle as threatened rather than endangered.

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

Monday’s announcement follows similar recent proposals from the FWS to protect two species of alligator snapping turtles that are native to the Southeast.

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