After Kansas lawmakers failed to pass heightened protections for ornate box turtles, government regulators have taken action to protect the state reptile from poachers who would have them “exported into extinction.”
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the new regulations on possession limits for amphibians and reptiles.
“We wanted to basically develop some possession limits that would reduce take from the wild, make it a little easier for law enforcement during stops,” said Daren Riedle, a KDWP wildlife diversity coordinator, “but still provide educational opportunities for kids, for all of us, that grew up keeping a box turtle or a lizard or something, you know, still provide those educational opportunities, which are beneficial for those that grow up enjoying the outdoors.”
The old rules in KAR-115-20-2 allowed anyone to keep up to five individuals of any species of amphibian or reptile that is not threatened or endangered. The new rules imposes a maximum of five total amphibians per domicile and up to five reptiles with no more than two of any species per domicile.
House Bill 2479, which failed to pass the Legislature in 2022 but was part of the impetus behind pursuing regulatory change, would have banned anyone from capturing or possessing an ornate box turtle.
Riedle said a consensus was found after working through several drafts between ecological services, law enforcement and non-governmental organizations that provided environmental, conservation and agricultural input.
Preventing box turtles from being ‘exported into extinction’
Dan Riley, chief counsel at KDWP, told the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and Regulations on July 10 that the regulation is a response to painted box turtles becoming the victims of an overseas pet industry.
“The intent was to limit the illegal trade so that box turtles aren’t basically exported into extinction by the pet trade, but still leave enough latitude in the language so that little kids that go to summer events could still have a turtle race,” Riley said. “We didn’t want to make it so that that the regulation became too heavy handed or create additional problems rather than dealing with the turtle export problem that it was intended to address.”
Rep. Bill Sutton, R-Gardner, said he had no issue with the regulation, but questioned whether it would solve the problem.
“It seems like this is a really tough one to enforce,” he said. “Just my way of thinking, it would be easier to stop it at the export step, rather than trying to police possession of turtles. That just seems really, really difficult to me.”
Riley said he did not have a good answer, though he believes the regulation “will have an impact.” Having a regulatory standard, along with education and public awareness, will help, he said. He also noted that export regulations are handled at the federal level.
“If somebody makes it their purpose and their mission to covertly ship painted box turtles out of Kansas, that’s going to become a bigger enforcement issue, obviously, but we’ve got an enforcement mechanism if it’s necessary,” he said. “So hopefully public awareness and just getting the word out that it’s detrimental to the species, it’s prohibited, don’t pick up turtles and then try to sell them to someone as a pet. So hopefully we’ll get a lot of benefit from that. And if we do need to do something further, then we’ll go back to the drawing board at that point.”
Legislature failed to pass turtle protections backed by Topekans
KDWP Secretary Brad Loveless told lawmakers in a February 2022 hearing that he supported HB 2479 because the agency was concerned about population declines for the species. He acknowledged that regulations could be an alternate route of accomplishing the same goal.
The bill, which was introduced by 11 Democrats led by former Topeka Rep. Jim Gartner, never made it out of the House Agriculture Committee in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Washburn University biology professor Benjamin Reed, who has studied the ornate box turtle for the past decade, told lawmakers at that hearing that poachers — who sometimes target research areas — are to blame for population declines.
Reed said turtles are important seed and spore dispersers, they prevent disease spread by eating carrion and they are important for pest and weed control, among other ecological roles. For ranchers, turtles are important for breaking down cow patties.
Topeka Zoo conservation and education director Dennis Dinwiddie said the species population has “experienced an alarming reduction.”
“Because box turtles have unique and colorful markings, they are collected from the wild and sold overseas through the illegal pet trade,” Dinwiddie testified. “We feel that poaching these turtles from the wild to send overseas has become the greatest threat they face. We feel it is the primary cause for their significant losses from the wild.”
As reported in the Topeka Capital Journal.