Federals seek to protect map turtles in 4 Gulf states, Georgia

The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that it is proposing to place the Pearl River map turtle as endangered, in an effort to grant additional federal protection to endangered species found only in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“These local freshwater turtles are endangered and need our help,” Regional Director Leopoldo Miranda Castro said in a press release.

The agency said it would also seek to protect the closely related Pascagoula map turtle, found only in Mississippi, and three other species found in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee because it resembles the Pearl River turtle.

Without protecting other species, it would be difficult for enforcement agents to stop people from catching and selling the Pearl River map turtle — one of the species’ major threats, according to a preview released the day before the scheme is published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

A “threat due to similarity” status would make it illegal to take the turtles out of the wild but would not require a recovery plan or other protection that the Pearl River turtles would receive if they were listed as threatened.

The name map turtle is derived from the shell markings that resemble contour lines on topographic maps. Map turtles are also called saw turtles because their shells have a central edge that sometimes develops saw-like points.

Their complex markings make them popular pets, the agency said.

“An analysis of online market offerings in Hong Kong revealed that interest in turtles as pets is increasing, that many species for sale are from North America, and that there is greater interest in rare species,” the proposal said.

According to the proposal, one of the reasons scientists haven’t mapped a critical habitat is that revealing this information would be a boon to fishermen about where to catch turtles.

“Federal protection for the beautiful Pearl River map turtle is long overdue,” said Jason Tutu, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, who joined Healthy Gulf, another environmental nonprofit, in filing a lawsuit to list endangered turtles. “Endangered” means that a species is in danger of becoming extinct in all or a significant portion of its range. Threatened means that a species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

“These turtles have managed to survive only a fraction of their historical range,” Tutu said. “While it is disappointing that the service is not proposing to protect endangered species for both species, I hope we can finally turn around and begin restoring these beautiful turtles and the waterways in which they once thrived.”

There are 13 species of map turtles, and the five included in the agency’s announcement are so similar that until 1992 they were all considered Alabama map turtles. In 2010, two months after the lawsuit was filed, the Pearl River turtle species was separated from the Pascagoula map turtle.

In addition to the threat from collectors, the Pearl River map turtle faces significant threats from habitat loss and damage, including pollution and climate change, which also threaten the rivers in which they live.

“These turtles are barely stranded in highly degraded waterways. Without federal protection, they may not survive,” said Cynthia Sartho, CEO of Healthy Gulf.

In addition to the Pascagoula species, another species protected as a similar species is the Alabama map turtle, also found in Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee; The Barbour map turtle lives in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia; A map turtle scambia in Alabama and Florida.

Publication in the Federal Register will begin a 60-day period for public comment.

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