Two totally different turtles need more protection to avoid extinction.

One turtle is a rough-backed swamp-dweller with a bone-crushing bite. The other is a dainty freshwater creature found only in Louisiana and Mississippi. Both turtles aren’t getting the protections they need to avoid extinction, according to a lawsuit the Center for Biological Diversity plans to file against President Joe Biden’s administration In a formal notice of intent to sue the federal government, the center said the alligator snapping turtle and Pearl River map turtle should be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a landmark environmental law credited with saving the Louisiana black bear and American alligator, among other species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed endangered species protections for the turtles last year, but the agency failed to finalize the rules within a year, as it’s required to do, according to the center. “These federal delays have real and devastating consequences for animals like the alligator snapping turtle that are struggling to survive,” said Camila Cossio, an attorney for the center. Citing agency policy, the service declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson said the service is still evaluating public input on both turtles’ proposed ESA listings.

A biologist holds a young alligator snapping turtle in Monroe in 2010. 

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is the one that is in the most trouble.

The alligator snapper faces a predicted 95% decline over the next 50 years, but the species could go extinct much sooner, according to the center. The turtles can weigh as much as a football linebacker, making them the largest freshwater turtles in North America. They get their name from powerful, beaked jaws and shells that resemble the ridged skin of alligators. Alligator snappers were almost wiped out by hunters and trappers during the 1960s and ‘70s. Their meat was a popular ingredient in soup. Fish and Wildlife Service data from six Southern states indicates Louisiana has the lowest abundance of alligator snappers. Yet much of of the state is considered its prime habitat. “They’re the heart of what’s really wild in the Southeast, and that’s what makes their decline so sad,” Elise Bennett, another center attorney, said.

An alligator snapping turtle.

The Pearl River Map Turtle has lost its range of living.

The smaller and less intimidating Pearl River map turtle likely had a wide range in the Southeast but is now confined to the waters in and around the Pearl River, which forms part of the boundary between Louisiana and Mississippi. Also known known as “sawbacks” for the ridges topping their shells, Pearl River map turtles face a host of challenges, including habitat loss from channel filling and dredging, collection for the pet trade, and illegal hunting. According to the Mississippi-Alabama SeaGrant program, the foot-long turtle’s habit of lining up on logs make them a popular target for gun enthusiasts.  A controversial proposal to dam part of the Pearl in Mississippi would degrade a large area of the turtle’s habitat, the center says. Because the turtles are highly sensitive to water quality, scientists often rely on them to indicate the health of waterways. If the turtles aren’t present, it’s usually an indicator that water quality’s going south.

The Pearl River map turtle is found only in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The agency admits their programs are not necessarily working right but funding is an issue.

Cossio said the service’s endangered species listing process is “badly broken.” But that’s not entirely the agency’s fault. “The agency needs more funding and less bureaucracy to effectively protect species that are sliding towards extinction,” she said. The center says the service failed to follow its own work plan for five other at-risk species that should have received final listing determinations by the end of September. “I’d be overjoyed if the Fish and Wildlife Service followed its work plan, but time after time, the agency fails to meet its own deadlines,” Cossio said. A recent study by Harvard and Princeton university ecologists found that endangered species protections have been undermined by exceedingly long wait times. The process, which is supposed to take no more than two years, has typically ranged between three and nine years since 1992, the study said. 

Protect our turtles