NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that it is proposing threatened status for alligator snapping turtles — huge, spike-shelled reptiles that lurk at the bottom of lakes and slow waterways, luring prey to their mouths by sticking out a wormlike lure.
Every state in their range now protects them, but the long-lasting effects of catching the reptiles for turtle soup are among reasons their numbers are now so low, the agency said.
“Alligator snappers are some of the fiercest, wildest creatures in the Southeast, but overexploitation and habitat destruction have put their lives on the line,” Elise Bennett, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release.
The turtles are suffering the effects of “decades and decades of exploitation,” said Bennett, whose organization sued for protection for the species.
Alligator snapping turtles can live 80 years, with males known to weigh up to 249 pounds and have shells up to 29 inches long. Their jaws are strong enough to snap bone.
An estimated 360,000 exist in 12 states, but without protection, their numbers are likely to plummet to 5 percent of that or less in 30 to 50 years, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday in an online preview of a Federal Register notice scheduled Tuesday.
They once were found in Kansas and Indiana, but now live in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, the agency said.
“The range has contracted in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and possibly in Oklahoma,” it noted. Those states all are along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
The service proposed threatened status in April for the related Suwannee alligator snapping turtle, found in the Suwannee River basin in Georgia and Florida.
It’s legal to catch alligator snapping turtles only in Louisiana, where recreational fishers are allowed one a day, and Mississippi, which limits recreational take to one per year, the federal agency said.
That would no longer be allowed if, after a comment period, the turtles go on the threatened list, Bennett said.
“In the 1970s, the demand for turtle meat was so high that as much as three to four tons of alligator snapping turtles were harvested from the Flint River in Georgia per day,” the Fish and Wildlife Service notice states.
The animals are long-lived but grow slowly, aren’t sexually mature until they’re 11 to 21 years old, and take an average of 31 years to successfully reproduce, the agency said. Many other animals eat the turtles’ eggs and young.