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Huge snapping turtle inches closer to endangered species protections

Once abundant across the Midwest and Southeast, the numbers of alligator snapping turtles have dwindled due to hunting for their shells and meat.

(CN) — The largest freshwater turtle in North America will receive endangered species protection if a proposal put forward by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is eventually approved. 

Fish and Wildlife proposed protecting the alligator snapping turtle on Monday after a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity led to a lawsuit prompting the agency to act. 

“Alligator snappers are some of the fiercest, wildest creatures in the Southeast, but overexploitation and habitat destruction have put their lives on the line,” said Elise Bennett, a center attorney. “These freshwater giants will get a real shot at survival and recovery with the help of the Endangered Species Act and its lifesaving protections.”

The alligator snapping turtle sports an enormous and heavy head and large body protected by a large shell that has a triple series of dorsal ridges along its back that conveys an appearance of a plated dinosaur. Adult males can weigh up to 249 pounds. 

Its cousin, the snapping turtle, which is more common throughout the United States, has a smoother carapace or shell. 

Once abundant throughout the Midwest and Southeast, the alligator snapping turtle's numbers began to dwindle as their shells commanded profits on the wildlife market and they were hunted and trapped for meat. Furthermore, encroachment into their freshwater habitat in the Southeast eroded their historic population numbers.

“Habitat loss is a significant threat to alligator snappers, and these exceptions could significantly hamper the species’ survival and recovery,” Bennett said.

Both legal and illegal trapping continues to occur in states like Missouri and Alabama, where the turtles once thrived. The creatures make their homes not only in the lakes in states like Illinois and Indiana but also the swamps and bayous of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. 

The turtle can be found in parts of at least 14 states. 

Fish and Wildlife found the animals are under particular evolutionary pressure in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. 

“These magnificent reptiles are sometimes called the dinosaurs of the turtle world because they look very prehistoric,” said Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, the service's regional director for the South Atlantic-Gulf and Mississippi-Basin regions. “The impacts of overharvesting and other human activities, along with the reality that they take up to 21 years to reproduce combined to put the alligator snapping turtle in peril.”

Scientists say females can begin producing eggs, usually 10 to 50 per clutch, by the time they reach age 12. Even so, they mate only once a year, and their nests are prone to predation, meaning their reproduction cycles are such that natural population booms are unlikely. 

The turtle does live a long time, with individuals in captivity reaching age 70. Some scientists speculate the turtles could live as long as 200 years in the wild. 

The service did invoke the “4b rule” which prohibits the direct killing of the animals but provides carve-outs for activities like applying pesticides, herbicides or construction bridges, dams and other infrastructure items, according to the center. 

“We’ll be taking a close look at this rule and the decision to list the turtle as threatened rather than endangered, which allows the rule,” Bennet said. 

Fish and Wildlife also said it would refrain from declaring critical habitat designation for the species, which would prevent a suite of commercial activities from occurring in the animal’s range. Critical habitat designations are one of the most controversial aspects of the endangered species law, with wildlife advocates arguing it is a necessary tool for stopping development and natural resource extraction from further contributing to population decline. 

But industry and business advocates say the rule can be used unscrupulously by individuals to shut down projects they don’t want near their communities and can have a negative impact on the economy. 

Fish and Wildlife will take public comment on the proposed rule through January 2022 and will decide whether to officially confer protection thereafter. 

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