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How to Save a Snapping Turtle

A snapping turtle attempting to cross Route 3, north of Saranac Lake. Photograph by Larry Master

There are three kinds of drivers: those who swerve to hit turtles, those who stop to move turtles, and those who pass on by.

In June, female snapping turtles haul their slaty hulks out of Adirondack ponds and rivers in search of a sandy spot to dig a hole and lay a clutch of soft-shelled eggs. So, this is when you most often see them on the road, trying to cross or dead by car tire.

If you’re an intentional turtle-hitter, you’re a jerk. If you’re a turtle-mover, the question is: what is the best way to help a snapper across? There are many approaches, some of them dangerous to the turtle, to the mover, or to motorists. So I sought an opinion from an expert, Glenn Johnson, chairman of the biology department at SUNY Potsdam and co-author of The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State:

“First, if it is on a road, try and pull over on the side of the road the turtle is on, which would make cars behind you swerve out away from the turtle rather than closer to it as they avoid your vehicle. Make sure you do not put yourself in danger of being struck by a vehicle as well; there have been instances of well-meaning folks, and even herpetologists, that have been struck by cars trying to move a turtle out of the road.

“Second, move the turtle in the direction it is heading, otherwise they may simply turn around and cross the road after you are gone. Small turtles can be simply picked up by the sides of the shell. With larger turtles, one might be tempted to pick it up by the tail. The problem here is that the weight of a large turtle can cause some of the tail vertebrae to separate, causing damage. But often time is of the essence, so dragging it along the ground by the tail is OK to get it out of harm’s way quickly.

“The best way to pick up and move a snapper is to grasp the carapace (top shell) with both hands just above the two hind legs near the tail. It cannot reach you with its jaws, however it may scratch you with the claws on its hind feet, which is a small price to pay I think, at least for me; not everyone is willing to let that happen.”

There you have it. I was an advocate of waving a stick in front of the turtle’s mouth to give it something to bite, but I like the simplicity of Johnson’s method, especially if you’re on your own.

A better way to save a turtle

There’s a more important and less risky thing you can do to help snapping turtles: contact your state legislators. The New York State Senate this session passed a bill that would allow the capture and killing of snapping turtles by hand or by trap. The legislation moved largely under the radar, and the New York State Assembly adjourned last week without voting on it. Currently it is legal to hunt snapping turtles in New York only with gun or bow July 15 through September 30. The trapping bill could resurface later this year or, more likely, in 2014.

A Ray Brook snapper. Photograph by Larry Master

Johnson, who conducts research on the threatened Blanding’s turtle, says that species could be inadvertently killed in traps intended for snapping turtles. He also questioned whether enough is known about the status of snapping turtle populations in New York, pointing out that the species is protected in Ontario.

Eggs and young turtles fall prey to all kinds of birds and animals, but once a snapper grows to a good size, not much can kill it other than a car, and roads do take a heavy toll on females because of their egg-laying forays. Individual turtles live 20 to 40 years.

Despite their fierce appearance and strong jaws, snapping turtles are usually docile in water and are not much competition for anglers. Allen Salzberg, publisher of the online reptile and amphibian newsletter HerpDigest.org, says most people don’t realize that they are primarily scavengers. They keep ponds clean but accumulate toxins in their fat, which can make them unappealing for the table. Yet Salzberg worries that trapping would allow snappers to be exploited for export to China, where there’s an avid market for American turtle meat.

“The whole thing was just pushed through the Senate,” Salzberg says. “There was no scientific basis. There was no reasoning beforehand. It opened up the chipping away of the protection of reptiles and amphibians, especially the ones that people don’t like. . . . It might make New York free of snapping turtles, which might make some people happy, but it would really destroy the environment of ponds.”

The Assembly designated the snapping turtle as New York State reptile in 2006, after a poll of elementary school children.

The bill is not expected to come up for a vote this fall, but to follow it contact your Assembly representative or check HerpDigest.org.

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