The “dinosaur-like” alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) are among the largest freshwater turtles in the world and are the largest in North America. They can weigh up to 200 pounds and can live to be 100 years!
The project to restore Alligator Snapping Turtles (ASTs) to their natural habitat was initiated as a response to a poaching sting operation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) law enforcement. Approximately 30 live ASTs were confiscated during the operation and held at the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery in Louisiana while the case was prosecuted. It was suspected that these turtles were taken from Texas and brought to Louisiana by poachers. To ensure the turtles’ return to their native habitat in Texas, state and federal resource agencies sought landowner cooperation.
Voluntary and collaborative conservation actions were taken to facilitate the successful reintroduction of the ASTs. Resource agencies, in coordination with hatchery staff and veterinarians from the Houston Zoo, conducted health checks and genetic sampling of the turtles prior to release. This measure aimed to prevent the introduction of pathogens or genes that could have negative consequences for wild populations. Landowners with potential release locations were identified and asked if they were willing to participate. Additionally, researchers conducted pre-release population surveys at the release sites, while personnel from various agencies coordinated efforts to facilitate the release. Telemetry equipment was fitted on the turtles before their release, enabling a long-term study to assess the success of the reintroduction and enhance our understanding of AST behavior.
However, the project encountered challenges and obstacles along the way. Firstly, the AST Species Status Assessment raised concerns that the released turtles might soon be listed as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This led to hesitancy among landowners, who were wary of the increased risk associated with introducing potentially listed species on their land. Secondly, genetic analysis was deemed necessary to determine the turtles’ river basin of origin and prevent unforeseen genetic consequences among wild populations.
Despite these challenges, the project successfully overcame them. The USFWS drafted an Endangered Species Act “Section 7” consultation (e.g., conference opinion) on the plan to release turtles. In the event of listing, this consultation would already have given incidental take authorization, minimizing the risk and eliminating the regulatory burden for landowners helping the species.
Additionally, the Turtle Survival Alliance provided funding and logistical support to Tangled Bank Conservation, which developed a range-wide population genetics framework to identify the drainages from which the confiscated turtles originated. The Sabine River Authority of Texas and the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District funded the genetic analysis to ensure the turtles were returned to their proper river basins.
The outcomes of the project were significant and will continue to provide conservation benefits long-term. Twenty-two adult and seven juvenile ASTs were returned to the wild six years after their confiscation. These individuals will contribute to local turtle populations in the areas where they were originally poached. Furthermore, the project used the Conservation without Conflict approach by fostering collaboration and trust among river authorities, state and federal resource agencies, universities, and private landowners. Their collective efforts and commitment to the species were recognized by the USFWS with the 2021 Partner of the Year Award.
The project yielded valuable lessons for conservation efforts. It demonstrated that even unusual or difficult challenges can be overcome through creativity, innovation, and effective communication. It also emphasized the importance of challenging conventional approaches and being open to alternative operational methods.
Among the project’s major accomplishments was the strengthening of partnerships between state and federal resource agencies and the establishment of a foundation for future conservation agreements and collaborations. Returning illegally collected wildlife to their native waters served as a great example of wildlife conservation without conflict in Texas and across the nation.
Looking back, the project organizers acknowledged the need for more time and resources for coordination. Although deliberate efforts were made to coordinate with the diverse range of partners involved, each entity had its own internal coordination needs and expectations. Recognizing these needs and expectations early on could make projects like this even more successful.
Funding for the project was provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife, Sabine River Authority, Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, and The Turtle Survival Alliance.
While the project itself was short-term, it laid the groundwork for future long-term conservation efforts. A long-term telemetry study will be conducted to assess the success and sustainability of the reintroduction, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of AST habitat use, range, and movements. The project serves as a testament to the power of collaborative conservation and highlights the potential for successful outcomes when multiple stakeholders work together towards a common goal.
By Bill Kirby, Sabine River Authority of Texas