A movement to abolish commercial turtle harvesting in Minnesota will continue to inch along despite a setback at the Legislature this year.
A measure to revoke the licenses of trappers who still target the animals passed the Minnesota House this year but got dropped in conference committee for the 2019 Fish & Game bill. Supporters are concerned that the turtle trade will further harm declining populations of the slow-to-mature animals. It's a cause worth fighting for, they say.
"It's not an issue we often think about when we think about the outdoors, but it's something we will be pushing again next year," said Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, a co-author of the proposed ban. "We want to preserve and save the turtles."
Minnesota is home to nine species of turtles, and only the wood turtle and Blanding's turtle are completely protected by state law. It's illegal to possess them, even for personal use. The other species can be captured recreationally with a fishing license, and the state continues to allow a limited commercial harvest of snapping, spiny softshell and painted turtles.
"Globally turtles are the most imperiled vertebrates," said Christopher Smith, chairman of the conservation committee of the Minnesota Herpetological Society. "A commercial harvest is not sustainable."
Smith testified at the State Capitol a couple of months ago, telling lawmakers that more and more states are banning commercial harvest of turtles for meat or other use. Those moratoriums have added to trapping pressure in Minnesota to fill orders in the U.S. and abroad, he said.
About 15 years ago, the state Department of Natural Resources led a campaign to end the sale of new turtle seller's licenses. The agency succeeded, but the Legislature grandfathered turtle trapping for more than 100 individuals who already held commercial licenses. Only 23 licensees remain, Smith said, but state law allows them to pass down the authority to their kin.
The bill carried by Lee and others proposed that turtles taken from the wild are for personal use only and can't be resold. The proponents also sought to require a new recreational permit to be coupled with a fishing license before turtles could be taken for personal use.
Jane Norris of the DNR said the agency was neutral on the attempted legislation but shares concerns that the commercial turtle harvest may be too high. The overall killing of turtles hasn't softened to the extent the DNR envisioned in 2003 when the sale of new commercial turtle licenses was discontinued.
According to data that Smith obtained from the DNR, commercially licensed trappers in Minnesota took and sold as many as 20,000 painted turtles as recently as 2015. In the same year, about 1,800 spiny softshell turtles were harvested. The harvest of snappers has been on the decline without large upward spikes from year to year. The state's annual snapping turtle harvest fell below 1,000 in 2009 and has not recovered. Twenty years ago trappers were peddling 5,000 snappers a year.
Norris said the DNR won't take a solid position on the issue until it meets with the state's remaining trappers.
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