Iowa seeks to save turtles, but trappers fear cultural loss
In 2016, Governor Branstad signed into law a requirement that the Department of Natural Resources set a season and daily catch limit for commercial turtle trapping. Zachary Boyden-Holmes/The Register
TABOR, Ia. — Amber Sharp insists that trapping turtles isn’t so much an art form as it is an exercise in common sense.
You need to keep an air pocket in the top of the trap so the turtles can come up to breathe. It’s best to use something like carp for bait — something oily that lingers in the water, drawing in the turtles. And you should always hold a snapper with its belly facing toward you if you don’t want to get bit. (And you don’t want to get bit.)
These are the lessons you learn when your family has been trapping and selling turtles for more than four decades, like Sharp’s has. Turtle trapping is a skill and a way of life she learned from her mother, who learned it from her uncle. It’s something Sharp hopes to pass on to her own kids.
“It keeps history going for the younger generations,” Sharp, 32, said on a recent July morning as she watched her 12-year-old son pull a wagon laden with freshly caught snapping turtles through a field near Tabor, a town of about 1,000 in the state’s far southwest corner.
But Sharp worries that new regulations taking shape in Iowa could derail a tradition that’s become part of her family’s identity.
Iowa is one of only a handful of states that allow commercial trappers to catch unlimited numbers of certain turtles, and biologists say that has resulted in some alarming trends in long-term harvest data. After years of lobbying from groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, Gov. Terry Branstad in March signed into law a requirement that the state’s Department of Natural Resources set a season and daily catch limit for commercial turtle trapping. The specifics are being determined and have not yet been implemented.
Although trappers and environmental groups have an interest in ensuring that turtles remain abundant in the state, their agreement on the issue appears to begin and end there. The groups remain fiercely at odds over whether restrictions are necessary, let alone how they should be structured.
« Turtle populations appear to be in trouble,” said Chad Dolan, a fisheries management biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, noting that the change could be related to a variety of issues, including changing habitats as well as commercial trapping. « When we see a downward trend, that’s a red flag to us that oh, my gosh, we better do something to try to preserve populations and try to be proactive before we reach that situation where all of a sudden (turtles) disappear. »
Trappers fear that if limits are set too narrowly — a short season with a small daily catch limit — it could make commercial trapping financially unviable, threatening their livelihoods and their way of life. Environmental groups worry the opposite: that changes won’t be strict enough to ensure the turtles’ continued protection. They point to many neighboring Midwest states that have seasons and daily catch limits of fewer than 10 turtles.
“As for the trapping, I don’t care what anybody says. It’s not what it used to be,” said one former turtle trapper who said he has noticed a decline in turtle population. He said he worried that trappers who disagree with him would slash his tires or otherwise harm his property for speaking out. It’s a small community: There are only 48 commercial turtle trappers licensed through the state.
“I think (trappers) are over-harvesting out of greed, because they’re allowed to do it — myself included,” he said. “When I trapped real hard years ago, you know, I didn’t give (the turtles) a break. I went pretty hard at it and wherever you could get ’em, you went and got ’em. … There’s a weird competition to it.”
“Turtle populations appear to be in trouble,” said Chad Dolan, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, noting the change could be related to a variety of issues, including changing habitats as well as commercial trapping. Zachary Boyden-Holmes/The Register
To catch a turtle
The morning sun casts a delicate light across the terraced fields of corn in rural Tabor, glimmering on the surface of a pond. The day soon will grow hot and humid. But for now, the air is cool and filled with the sounds of birds chirping and the crunch of grass underfoot as Sharp, her son, and a family friend, Brian Forbes, make their way to their first set of turtle traps.
They place their traps — netting stretched over a hooped wire frame with a thin opening on one end — in private ponds with the permission of local farmers and landowners in the area. The landowners, they say, complain that the snapping turtles bite at their livestock and interfere with their fishing. Other trappers will put nets on rivers, creeks, marshes — any body of water that might be home to turtles.
Forbes pulls at a rope and heaves the first trap ashore, revealing two midsize snapping turtles.
“Come on, get out of there. He’s a big one,” Forbes says as he shakes the turtles unceremoniously out of the net and onto the grass.
Sharp’s son, J.C., swiftly picks one up by its tail, holding it away from his body in an effort to avoid its strong jaws. To stymie potential escape efforts, he deposits it into a canvas bag and loads it onto a wagon. He quickly repeats the cycle with the other turtle, and the group moves on to its next trap.
Snappers are among the four species commercially harvested in Iowa, along with painted turtles, spiny softshell turtles and smooth softshell turtles. In 2014, the most recent year for which DNR data are available, trappers statewide caught a reported 17,504 turtles, worth a wholesale value of $272,869.
Right now, snappers can sell for about $1 a pound, either to buyers who butcher and sell the meat, or directly to fish and seafood markets. Some turtles enter the pet trade, and others, usually farm-bred hatchlings, are shipped overseas to help stock turtle farms, primarily in Asian countries.
SOURCE: Reptiles and amphibians of Iowa
But as those farms have become established, they no longer rely on American turtle shipments. Prices have dropped as a result, with snappers selling for about half of what they were worth just a few years ago when demand was high. It has led many Iowa trappers to get out of the business entirely.
This year, fewer than 50 people are commercially licensed through the state. In each of the previous five years, there have been more than 100 license holders, peaking with 179 in 2012.
But Sharp and her mother, Nancy Covert, are holding out hope. Last year, they didn’t even break even. But for Covert, it’s about more than money.
« Other families may have some other thing they do, » she said. « Well, this is mine. This is mine. It’s nature. Learning to do nature. »
By the end of the day, they will have caught five snapping turtles weighing 61 pounds and another five painted turtles. They estimate they’ve caught about 700 pounds worth of turtles this year. Even with a good market, the money is modest, but it helps supplement what they make from raising goats and hens on their small farm.
Many of Iowa’s trappers say they consider turtle trapping primarily a hobby or side business. For a small number, though, it can be a significant source of income.
Jim Millard, a longtime trapper, said those with experience who pursue it full time (and « there’s only two or three of them in Iowa, » he said) could expect to make up to $20,000 in profits during a trapping season that begins when the weather starts to warm up in May or June and continues until September.
“People could still go out and trap turtle at $1 a pound and still supplement their income,” he said. “They won’t get rich, but they still make good money.”
Millard’s family owns a turtle farm and also buys wild-caught turtles from trappers like Sharp. He has retired and handed the business over to his kids. But when he answered the phone to speak with The Des Moines Register, he was out checking turtle traps — it’s not something he’s ready to let go of.
He worries about the season and catch limits under consideration by the DNR, saying that if they were strict enough to effectively end commercial trapping, it would be “devastating” on a deeply personal level.
“I’m done retired, and it won’t affect my income,” he said. “But my kids, you know, that’s what I taught my kids to do — how to live off of the wild and how to respect the wild and how to preserve it. … I would be the first person that would be up there screaming to regulate turtles if I thought there was a problem, because every generation we went through has lived off that.”
Dolan, the DNR biologist, recognizes the small painted turtle they’ve caught from the Des Moines River just outside Boone. His name is R2-L12, which is indicated by the two small holes drilled into his shell. It means the DNR has caught this turtle and tagged it before.
But this isn’t necessarily good news to Dolan.
“Everybody thinks they’re super abundant,” he tells a group of DNR staff he’s training to trap and tag turtles. “But on subsequent visits, when you actually mark them, you’re seeing the same turtles over and over and over again.”
On a recent July morning, he gathered representatives from the DNR fisheries bureau to teach them how to set turtle traps and tag and catalog what they catch. It’s another requirement of the bill Branstad signed this year — it requires the DNR to conduct a five-year study of the state’s turtle populations and to report its findings back to the Legislature.
Dolan and other herpetologists point to a turtle’s unique biology, which makes it especially vulnerable to things like over-harvest. Unlike other animals, turtles don’t begin to reproduce until they’re much older.
Kurt Buhlmann, a researcher with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia, said that for snapping turtles, that’s usually about 12 years old. And there’s a litany of natural factors that make it difficult for them to reach that age. Even though turtles may lay 40 eggs at a time, scientists estimate that only 10 percent survive their first year in the wild because they’re so heavily preyed on as eggs and as hatchlings.
“So, if we take the adult snapping turtle out of the population … we have to wait a dozen or 14 years or so to see offspring again,” said Buhlmann. Adult turtles with their thick shells are designed to survive, but when « we go out to a population and we catch half or 20 or 40 of the adult turtles in that lake — that’s a mortality rate they have never encountered over their evolutionary history.”
Even though most herpetologists agree that a turtle’s biology makes it uniquely susceptible to over-harvest, and the Iowa DNR is confident that its data and research show troubling signs, Iowa’s trappers are loath to trust them.
“The DNR has an agenda,” said Michael O’Hearn, a trapper from Northboro who has been turtle trapping for 23 years. He estimates that turtle trapping accounts for about one-fourth of his income some years, depending on the catch.
“A lot of the newer people in the DNR, I would say, are more animal rights-conscious than scientific management-conscious. … If you’ve trapped places for 20 years and you still have a good catch there, why would you trust those people at all?”
Most trappers interviewed by the Register echoed those sentiments, saying they feel this is just one more example of government overreach.
Those who have been active in the discussions about how to set the season and catch limits were especially spooked by a DNR suggestion to ban all commercial harvest from January through June in an effort to protect turtles during their nesting season and to set a catch limit on snapping turtles of four per day and only one of each of every other species.
“There’s a lot of people that do make a living doing that during the summer months, and you’re basically shutting them down, » said Austin Bolender, a trapper from Kingsley.
DNR representative Martin Konrad said that was simply a place to begin conversation and a way to elicit feedback — it is not a formal proposal, he said. The DNR expects to make its proposal to the governor’s office this summer.
Many states have a season on commercial turtle harvesting, while others ban the practice entirely. Martin said the goal in Iowa is to find a middle ground ensuring that there is some way to maintain commercial trapping while still protecting turtles.
Duane Smith, of Sperry, no longer traps or farms turtles commercially. His knees have arthritis, and the market just isn’t there, he said. He said he has noticed that turtle populations have thinned out since he and his wife began trapping in 1986 — back when they could catch several thousand pounds of turtle in a single weekend. But he’s not worried. The turtles will rebound now that fewer people are out trapping, he said.
He’s more concerned that future generations may not be introduced to things like turtle trapping, fishing and hunting. He knows trappers are something of a dying breed themselves.
« It’s all I know. It’s all I’ve ever done. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, » he said. « It’s almost gone. »