HARRISBURG, Ore. — Wildlife officials captured a 25-lb snapping turtle found wandering through a Harrisburg pasture on Apr. 28. The invasive species, which poses a threat to native fish and wildlife habitats, not to mention human hands and feet, was a product of illegal turtle trafficking.
Snapping turtles have powerful jaws and may aggressively bite when threatened. Their sharp beaks may remove chunks of skin, according to ODFW Assistant District Biologist Marianne Brooks. Brooks measured the male American Snapping turtle found in Harrisburg at 14″ wide and 20″ long, and likely more than 30 years old.
“This turtle had a head the size of a baseball, and a neck he could extend at least ten inches from his shell,” Brooks said, “You wouldn’t want to run into something like this if you were out fishing. You definitely wouldn’t want your dog to find it.”
It is against the law to purchase, possess, transport or release snapping turtles without a special license in Oregon. Non-native turtles thrive in Oregon waterways and easily out-compete native turtles. They arrive, as this one did, through illegal wildlife trafficking channels.
Turtles are among the most widely trafficked animals across the globe, and a booming business threatens their survival. Wildlife biologists witness greed firsthand as poachers fill their backpacks with turtles and line their pockets with cash.
Oregon’s native Northwestern pond turtle and Western painted turtle are necessary parts of a healthy ecosystem. They clean the environment by scavenging dead fish and other wildlife. Their eggs and hatchlings can be a food source for native wildlife. And their longevity means they are productive year after year. Populations of native Northwestern pond turtles and Western painted turtles dwindle upon release of non-native species like red-eared sliders and snapping turtles, which compromises native habitats and ecosystems, and compete for basking areas and hideaways.
Releasing invasive species into native wetlands is one method of habitat destruction for which subjects can be criminally cited, according to officials. And the trafficking goes both ways when poachers steal native turtles and sell them online to buyers across the country and across the globe.
Last summer, ODFW biologist Chris Yee, who monitors turtle nesting in Eugene, discovered someone had dug up two Northwestern pond turtle nests. The thieves took six hatchlings from one nest and eight from the other.
Yee, who found the empty eggshells scattered in the nest the following day, thinks the quarter-sized hatchlings were trafficked into the pet trade. Wildlife traffickers trade money for the future of the species when they move the shelled reptiles, also known as herps, from pond to pet trade. The crime is considered poaching.
Turtle theft is an ongoing problem in Eugene. In response, Yee fenced off an area for the turtle nesting and posted signs warning the public not to disturb the sites. He even staged cameras to monitor the area. But then someone cut the fence to steal the cameras, causing about $2,000 in damage and loss for the program.
Herps are easy to capture, sell online and then ship. Buyers most likely think their purchase is legal, and sending a hatchling as a gift has become popular in a world in which everything is available online. A recent case tried in New York revealed smugglers transporting turtles between China and the U.S., where buyers paid hundreds of dollars for turtles as exotic pets or extravagant meals.
Not all illegal turtle trafficking is overtly sinister and coordinated. In Oregon backyards and bedrooms, turtles live in tanks as pets. But the typical lifespan of a turtle is at least 25 years, and many live for more than 50 years. Eventually, owners who become disenchanted with their pets may attempt to sell, re-home, or release them.
That’s when wildlife and law enforcement officials become involved.
Rick Boatner, ODFW biologist and invasive species coordinator, regularly responds to calls from people looking to surrender turtles, salamanders, snakes and other non-native species.
“Often online vendors either do not know the rules of the state they are shipping to or just don’t care,” Boatner said. “People who buy them don’t care or don’t know about the consequences non-native species can have to native species when they are released into the wild.”
Wildlife trafficking and poaching go hand-in-hand, according to ODFW Stop Poaching campaign coordinator, Yvonne Shaw.
“Wildlife trafficking, whether involving live animals or animal parts, is human behavior that hopefully we can change by raising awareness,” she said, “Fish and wildlife already must contend with climate change and reductions in habitat.”
The Stop Poaching Campaign educates the public on how to recognize and report poaching. This campaign is a collaboration among state agencies, sportsmen and other conservationists, landowners, and recreationists to engage the public in combatting Oregon’s poaching problem. Our goal is to: Incentivize reporting on wildlife crimes through the TIP Line; Strengthen enforcement by increasing the number of OSP Fish and Wildlife Troopers; and Support prosecution in becoming an effective deterrent. The campaign helps to protect and enhance Oregon’s fish and wildlife and their habitat for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Contact campaign coordinator Yvonne Shaw for more information.Yvonne.L.Shaw@odfw.oregon.gov.
If you know of or suspect other crimes against fish wildlife or habitat, please report to the Turn In Poachers (TIP) Line. 1-800-452-7888 or OSP (677) from a mobile phone. Or email: TIP@osp.oregon.gov.