Legislators seek to stop commercial turtle harvesting in Minnesota

Bill banning capture and sale of turtles introduced at capitol as advocates worry about impact on fragile species.




4 minute read

Painted turtle, Afton, MN (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

A bill introduced at the Minnesota State Capitol this week would put an end to an industry that has held on in Minnesota longer than most Midwestern states. Ten months out of the year, permitted trappers harvest several species of turtle, for meat and the pet trade.

Rep. Samantha Vang (DFL-Brooklyn Park)

Wildlife advocates say the practice is outdated, and harmful to turtle populations. H.F. 387, introduced by Rep. Samantha Vang, would put a halt to it. The second-term lawmaker previously got the legislation through the House in 2019, but not the Senate.

The life cycles and reproduction strategies of turtles makes them uniquely affected by trapping.

Mother turtles lay a lot of eggs, and only a few survive to maturity. Many eggs are dug up by predators like raccoons and skunks, while any hatchlings that make it to the water have precarious years ahead, fending for themselves from the first day.

They spend their summers avoiding herons, hawks, and otters. Turtles must survive until seven or eight — or older — before they are even ready to reproduce. Then the females crawl onto shore, dig a hole in the sand, and lay their first brood.

But, once they reach this age, turtles are pretty tough for most predators to kill. One that makes it this far often goes on to live long lives, producing many clutches of eggs.

This illustration shows how long it takes for turtles to reach reproductive age, compared to other animals that may have many generations before a turtle’s first brood. (Christopher Smith/Twitter)

Maintaining the population generation after uncertain generation is a beautiful balancing act that has worked for millions of years so far.

When trappers take a mature turtle from its home waters, they remove one of the few and the strong that have survived while their brothers and sisters probably did not.

“Commercial harvest is unsustainable for turtle populations and regulations need to be updated to reflect our understanding of turtle population management,” the Minnesota Herpetological Society said.

A 2010 study from the University of Minnesota found fewer turtles in lakes where commercial turtle harvest occurred than in lakes without trapping. Minnesota is one of fewer than 25 states that still allow commercial harvest, with Iowa the only neighboring state that permits it.

Painted turtles on a basking trap in Minnesota (Tony Gamble/Wikipedia)

The new bill would prohibit the resale of captured turtles, allowing continued harvest solely for personal use. It would prevent any permitted commercial harvesters from renewing their license when it expires.

Minnesota enacted a moratorium on new commercial turtle harvesting licenses in 2002. There are still about 20 active sellers left in the state.

Each year, they collect thousands of turtles of three species: painted, snapping, and spiny softshell turtles. Many of the reptiles are shipped to Asia for pets or food. The season is closed during the breeding season of May and June.

Data via MN DNR, charts courtesy Christopher Smith

Painted turtles are the most popular for trappers. Each of Minnesota’s licensed harvesters collects on average about 300 painted turtles per year.

Next Tuesday, a House committee will hold a hearing on H.R. 387 as a first step toward full votes. Committee chair Rep. Rick Hansen has already shown support for the legislation and signed on a a co-author. There is not yet a companion bill in the state senate.

Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee
Tuesday, February 09, 2021 at 1:00 PM
View online: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/schedule.asp

Members of the public with questions about this process or who are interested in testifying at this meeting may email committee staff at Peter.Strohmeier@house.mn. Written testimony can be sent to the same staff member by 1 p.m., February 8.

A petition has also been launched asking the DNR to support halting commercial harvest. When the bill was introduced previously, the agency did not take a stance on it, saying it didn’t have enough data.


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One response to “Legislators seek to stop commercial turtle harvesting in Minnesota”

  1. Mary Avatar

    I had no idea that turtle harvesting was even happening, but I am not surprised either. Thank you to Rep. Vang for writing and introducing this bill. We need more representatives to be stewards of Minnesota’s environment and wildlife. Protect. Do no harm.


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Legislators seek to stop commercial turtle harvesting in Minnesota