September–October 2023


Catching a Break

A new turtle-trapping ban will protect state populations.

Carolyn Howell

Strolling by a local pond on a quiet summer evening, one might not guess that the painted turtle basking on a nearby log can be commercially harvested for local and international sale. But that will change beginning January 1, 2024, when a ban on commercial trapping of wild turtles goes into effect in Minnesota. Part of the environment, natural resources, climate, and energy omnibus bill passed by the state Legislature in May, the ban seeks to protect and stabilize wild turtle populations. Minnesota is the 35th state to outlaw commercial turtle trapping—the result of a multiyear collaboration between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Herpetological Society, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

In the past decade, herpetologists around the globe have found that harvesting turtles for medicine, food, and research is unsustainable due to multiple factors, including slow maturity rates. It can take up to 15 years before a female turtle is able to reproduce. Consequently, if large numbers of adult turtles are harvested, the reproduction rate of a population plummets. 

As other states began to ban the commercial harvest of turtles, buyers turned to Minnesota trappers, which put pressure on Minnesota’s turtle populations. “All of a sudden we found that one person was harvesting thousands of softshell turtles,” says Krista Larson, Minnesota DNR nongame research biologist. “So it just became eye-opening that even though we thought this was something that could be phased out sustainably, pressures from outside our state borders really ended up impacting the resident turtle harvest here in Minnesota.”

The new statute prohibits the use of any commercial gear and will require a special license for those interested in harvesting turtles for personal use. (Previously, anyone possessing an angling license could keep up to three turtles.) The new license will function like a trout stamp but will cost as much as a seasonal angling license. 

Christopher Smith, conservation committee chair of the Minnesota Herpetological Society, views Minnesota’s harvest ban as a conservation victory. But he says more work needs to be done to inform the public about the importance of protecting the state’s turtles, adding that continued education will be critical for ensuring that future conservation efforts are successful. “One of the big obstacles we encountered [while lobbying for the harvest ban] was that the public was saying they haven’t noticed a population decline,” says Smith. “But we know that one person’s observation at one point in time is not a proper reflection of what’s happening at that population level.” 

Although it may take several decades to see visible changes in the data, experts are optimistic. Says Larson, “I’m excited that Minnesota took this step, and I’m hoping for a great outcome long term.”