programs Natural Resources

Alligator Snapping Turtle Repatriation and Movement

(Macrochelys temminckii)

Background

In 2020, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) approached the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) about repatriating confiscated alligator snapping turtles to their native Texas rivers. Federal agents had seized dozens of turtles in a poaching operation bust and were sheltering them in a hatchery in Louisiana.

It was a potential solution to multiple problems. Alligator snapping turtles can live for a century and are not easy to care for. Further, the turtles in the hatchery were producing offspring, and there was no long-term plan for the captive population. FWS also was considering listing the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Reintroducing the turtles to their native waters was an opportunity to mitigate some of the harm done by the poachers. Genetic analysis determined the river basin of origin for each turtle, so there was little concern about disrupting the genetics of each basin. Attaching transmitters to the reintroduced adults also provided a chance to study the turtles’ movement and habitat use. If the repatriation was a success, the lessons learned could become part of a larger recovery effort.

In the spring and summer of 2021, in partnership with the Sabine River Authority, Army Corps of Engineers, Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, Stephen F. Austin State University and private landowners, FWS and TPWD released 22 adults and six juveniles back into Texas, spread across three river basins.

In November 2021 the FWS proposed listing the turtle as a threatened species with a proposed Section 4(d) rule under the ESA. For more information, see the FWS Fact Sheet under ResourcesS proposed listing the turtle as a threatened species under the ESA.

Research Description

Repatriation is dangerous for turtles. The stress of being moved and challenges of establishing a new home range often lead to mortality. But the poached alligator snapping turtles proved resilient, with only one confirmed death in the summer of 2021.

After it was clear the turtles would survive, the Sabine River Authority and the Texas Comptroller’s Office collaborated with TPWD to fund continued monitoring by Stephen F. Austin State University. With this combined funding, the research team will be able to spend two years tracking the movements of the turtles in the wild.

Using jon boats and kayaks, or wading through the shallow rivers, swamps and lakes of East Texas, the research team will track the turtles with a receiver that can detect the transmitters from more than a kilometer away, even under water. Each time a turtle is located, the researcher will record the habitat where it is found. The data will be analyzed to provide insight into the survivability of the turtles and habitat needs of the species. All data will be made available to other researchers and agencies.

This research is expected to continue through 2023.

Deliverables Due at Contract End, December 31, 2023

  • All occurrence records and associated data
  • Analysis of habitat use and movement
  • Identification of remaining data gaps and recommendations for future research
  • Public updates at stakeholder meetings

Why This Research Matters

Because of the potential ESA listing, there is a need at federal and local levels to understand alligator snapping turtle behavior and establish effective conservation actions. FWS needs information as it identifies threats and evaluates the status of the species. Local stakeholders want to know what can be done to protect the species and maintain regulatory certainty for their operations.

Alligator snapping turtle poaching in Texas is a continuing threat and is being considered as part of the listing decision. Federal and state law enforcement officers expect to continue their investigations and the subsequent confiscation of alligator snapping turtles from poachers.

Research results will contribute to the understanding of fundamental aspects of the ecology of this species; specifically, its habitat use as well as seasonal movement patterns. Research also will provide an opportunity to understand the turtles’ survivorship patterns as they are monitored over time. These results will provide guidance for state and federal agencies on how to reintroduce them back to the wild in Texas.

When combined with the ongoing alligator snapping turtle distribution research the Comptroller’s office is funding at University of Houston – Clear Lake and recently completed surveys funded by TPWD and others, this work will provide the most comprehensive evaluation on the status of alligator snapping turtles in Texas to date. Through the extensive and complementary nature of these research efforts, researchers can help East Texas stakeholders identify and mitigate threats to the species. All this information will help the FWS make more informed decisions about the species, determine what level of protection and regulation is appropriate, and decide whether conservation actions are needed. Because of the importance of this research and its time-sensitive nature, stakeholders across East Texas, including the regulatory agencies, will be kept informed on the progress through the regularly held meetings of the Comptroller’s East Texas Initiative.