Three Men Admit to Trafficking Protected Turtles

(CN) – Three men face $250,000 fines and prison time after pleading guilty to illegally trafficking alligator snapping turtles from Texas, where the species is threatened with statewide extinction.

Travis Leger and Rickey Simon, both of Sulphur, La., and Jaskon Leckelt of Wilburton, Okla., all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which makes it a federal crime to traffic wildlife taken in violation of state wildlife protection laws.

The men were charged in April in a six-count indictment, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement issued Tuesday.

Leger, Simon and Leckelt were accused of illegally taking more than 60 large alligator snapping turtles during multiple fishing trips in Texas in 2016, and transporting the turtles back to a property in Sulphur, where they planned to sell the turtles.

In July 2016, federal agents seized 30 large alligator snapping turtles from ponds at one of their properties.

With their spiked shells and tails and beaklike jaws that are so powerful they can snap through bone, alligator snapping turtles are sometimes referred to as the “dinosaur of the turtle world.”

Female alligator snapping turtles usually weigh no more than 50 pounds, while males average 26 inches in shell length and weigh about 175 pounds, but have been known to exceed 220 pounds.

They are sometimes collected for their meat and to be sold in the exotic animal trade.

The species is typically found in rivers, canals and lakes in the southeastern United States, and are listed as protected in Texas and other states, where their population has dwindled due to unregulated takings and habitat loss.

The turtles are also protected under Louisiana law, which makes it illegal to sell or barter for the turtles.

“Those who choose to exploit our precious wildlife resources threaten the existence of these rare reptiles,” Acting U.S. Attorney for Eastern Texas Brit Featherston said in a statement. “Protection of the turtles and the prevention of diseases that may spread by these actions make these prosecutions vital to the health of our natural wildlife.”

Leger admitted that the market value of all the turtles he caught illegally in Texas and sold in Louisiana was between $40,000 and $95,000, while his half-brother Leckelt said the market value of the turtles he personally caught was between $15,000 and $40,000.

Simon admitted that his role in the conspiracy included selling a 120-pound turtle to an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent in May 2016.

The defendants each face up to a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph R. Batte of the Eastern District of Texas and senior trial attorney David P. Kehoe of the Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section, prosecuted the case.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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