Saturday, July 27, 2013

A snapping turtle bill in New York State that should NOT become law...

    Assembly Bill A2490-2013 would amend the New York State Environmental Conservation Law to allow trappers to take snapping turtles, our State Reptile. Turtles already are under pressure globally, with populations reduced by more than half, and many species already endangered. Likewise, snappers are already under pressure in New York State. To permit trapping as an additional source of mortality for our State Reptile would be like allowing hunting of our national symbol, the bald eagle, as both are highly esteemed, emblematic, and pressured.
    The snapping turtle is a keystone species in ecosystems. Yet, ‘clamshell’ dredges that have been in use for several years removing PCB sediments in the Hudson River also have been killing hundreds if not thousands of these key ecosystem predators gruesomely. Several more years and many more miles of ecosystem mayhem in the Hudson River are planned. Likewise, the Mohawk River shoreline fluctuates drastically, posing risks to turtle eggs, and thereby to future turtle generations, as Canal System managers lower water levels to protect precarious dams and locks from damaging, increasingly frequent and intense storms. Shoreline variability threatens to inundate turtle eggs that were laid too close to shore, desiccate eggs laid too far away, and landlock unfortunate hatchlings.
    If the snapping turtle trapping proposal was motivated by our State’s economic woes, it is misguided also on economic grounds. Snapping turtles are generally harmless unless consumed. The danger to consumers arises from the ecosystem role of snapping turtles as top predators, concentrating toxins in their flesh, such as PCBs and mercury. So trapping them is unhealthy, both to people and to the turtles. This inconvenient truth precludes any significant commercial value of A2490. Snappers may be big turtles, but they are definitely not big business, and definitely not big tax generators for New York State.
    Trapping snapping turtles is unlike harvesting corn each year because, unlike corn, turtles do not grow back the following year. Turtles take many years to reach full size. Trapping them is more like cutting redwood trees: you must wait a long time to see them grow back, which they never will do if their habitat is also degraded, as it has been.

    A2490 passed in the Senate on 13 June 2013.  If it passes in the Assembly, it becomes law. Threatened and endangered turtles such as terrapins, Blanding's turtles, and wood turtles will be affected adversely as ‘bycatch’. The easiest snapping turtles to trap will be females laying eggs near riverside and lakeside roads. Although protection of all snapping turtles should continue, these females are least appropriate for trapping, because future snapping turtle generations depend upon their well-being. Trapping licenses, which should continue to exclude all snapping turtles, therefore should continue also to exclude egg-laying females, just as marine trappers are required by Federal law to protect egg-bearing (‘gravid’) female crabs and lobsters.

    I have been rescuing turtles, including snapping turtles, on local roads for two decades. In recent years snapping turtles have been smaller than in previous years. I also have observed fewer snapping turtles, probably due to habitat loss, especially road building projects. The east end of Rosendale Road in Niskayuna is an example, where frequent repaving gradually has elevated the roadbed and widened shoulders near the river, depriving turtles of suitable nesting sites. A recently-built retaining barrier on both sides of the road makes avoiding collisions with wildlife (and cars) more difficult. I suggested installing subterranean culverts to reduce roadkill by providing safe passage to wildlife including turtles, but funds for such construction were said to be unavailable.          

    Defeating A2490-2013 is scientifically justified and economically affordable as shown. Equally important, scientific evidence documenting the health of snapping turtle populations in New York State is nonexistent. Scientific evidence supporting the bill should have been a prerequisite for proposing it. Yet, I am aware of no such supporting evidence.

    Defeating A2490-2013 also is humane. Indeed, science also has shown that people are sympathetic to turtles, even snapping turtles. In one experiment, for example, drivers were observed to avoid hitting turtle decoys far more consistently than snake decoys that were placed on the road.

    Snapping turtles may be neither beautiful nor cuddly, but they are complex, intelligent animals. Once, I tried to remove a snapping turtle from a highway by offering her my sneaker, but she released it as soon as I started moving her. After that, she would not bite my sneaker again. I also raised three snapping turtles from eggs and, when I tried to release them two years later, I found that they had become imprinted on me, perhaps like geese to the behavioral animal psychologist Konrad Lorenz. Each turtle walked off the dock, entered the water, and then swam back to me. To release them, I tossed all three into the water, and walked away.

    Snapping turtles are not like lovable pet dogs, but they are underdogs, and they do need advocates. My advocacy is motivated by love and fascination for these ancient reptiles but, as shown above, it is based firmly on science. A2490-2013 should be defeated. Defeating A2490 is humane, scientifically justified, and economically affordable.
The above item was published in similar form by the Sunday Gazette (Schenectady) on 16 June 2013.