Alligator Snapping Turtle One Step Closer to Endangered Species Protection

Largest Freshwater Turtle in North America Threatened by Ongoing Habitat Destruction Across Midwest, Southeast

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity today reached a settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requiring the agency to determine by 2020 whether the alligator snapping turtle will receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. A prehistoric-looking freshwater turtle known for its spiked shell, large claws and strong, beaked jaws, the alligator snapper has declined up to 95 percent across its historic range. In response to a 2012 petition from the Center, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined last year that the alligator snapping turtle may warrant federal protection.

“Alligator snapping turtles are disappearing from many of the areas they historically lived,” said Elise Bennett, a Center attorney whose work is dedicated to protecting rare reptiles and amphibians. “The evidence is strong these freshwater giants need Endangered Species Act protection to survive.”

Habitat degradation and overharvest have caused significant population declines for the once-abundant turtle. Early in the 20th century alligator snapping turtles were plentiful in U.S. river systems draining into the Gulf of Mexico, from the waterways and lakes of the upper Midwest to the swamps and bayous of Florida, Louisiana and Texas. But recent population surveys show the turtles are now likely extirpated in Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. A 2014 study revealed that the alligator snapping turtle is actually three different species and therefore even more critically endangered than previously thought.

“This settlement is a welcome first step,” said Bennett. “Now the Service needs to evaluate and act according to the best science we have, which shows that these three species deserve full Endangered Species Act protection.”

Under the terms of a 2011 agreement with the Service, the Center can choose 10 species per year for expedited decisions on whether they should receive Endangered Species Act protection. The other nine priority species for 2016, with years when decisions are due, include the monarch butterfly (2019), Virgin River spinedace (2021), California spotted owl (2019), Northern Rockies fisher (2017), foothill yellow-legged frog (2020), Canoe Creek pigtoe (2020), beaverpond marstonia (2017), cobblestone tiger beetle (2019) and Barrens topminnow (2017). Under the settlement 147 species have gained protection to date, and 35 species have been proposed for protection.