Freshwater Turtle Time in Oklahoma
| October 12, 2012
Alligator snapping turtle. Photo by Dan Moore.
Alligator snapping turtle. Photo by Dan Moore.
By Michael Bergin, information and education specialist

Dr. Tim Patton, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, recently spoke to the Wildlife Conservation Commission on the status of freshwater turtles in eastern Oklahoma. Freshwater turtles are in decline worldwide, yet there is still a high demand for turtle meat in commercial markets.

"This has actually been identified as perhaps one of if not the most imperiled groups of vertebrates right now," Patton said.

Fifty-five percent of the turtle species worldwide are currently considered threatened. Two major reasons for the declines include habitat loss and harvesting for meat and the pet trade.

Turtle populations are more abundant and diverse in the United States and Oklahoma than in other regions. However, Patton notes that areas with high demand for turtle meat look to the U.S. for that food supply. Patton said, 32 million turtles were exported from the U.S. to Asia from 2002 through 2005.

"The species diversity of turtles in Oklahoma plays many roles in our state's aquatic ecosystems, some of which we may not even be aware," Curtis Tackett, aquatic nuisance species biologist for the Wildlife Department.

In May 2008, the commission implemented a temporary ban on commercial turtle harvesting in public waters of Oklahoma and partnered with SEOSU and OSU to conduct population studies. The research was conducted in the eastern third of Oklahoma and, in order to establish comparable data, was modeled after research done in the late 1990s.

"As the state agency responsible for the conservation of fish and wildlife populations in Oklahoma, it is our duty to ensure that these turtle populations are sustainable for future generations," Tackett said.

Patton said it is impossible to accurately estimate the number of turtles in Oklahoma, so instead a measurement called "catch per unit effort" is used as an indication of abundance. Similar efforts used by biologists in Oklahoma to understand trends in abundance of wildlife populations without providing exact counts include deer spotlight surveys, roadside quail calling counts and electrofishing surveys.

The research showed declines in catch per unit effort at 80 percent of the locations used in the 1990s, and there was a 64 percent reduction overall in the catch. Additionally, while aquatic turtle license sales increased in Oklahoma from 2001 to 2007 just prior to the ban, total reported harvest still declined by about 55,000 turtles per year.

"Harvest has gone down despite an increase in license sales," Patton said.

The current ban allows turtle trapping in private waters. It will expire in 2013. Patton and his research team have recommended permanently prohibiting commercial turtle harvest in most public waters while still allowing private harvest and removal of turtles from private farm ponds and property. Citizens should expect to hear a presentation on the matter at public hearings in January. Before the ban, the Wildlife Department sold fewer than 100 aquatic turtle licenses per year.

"We have a great working relationship with Dr. Patton that goes back years, and we appreciate their important research efforts on this topic," said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Department.


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