I recently posted a photo of my friend Kevin Murphy and me butchering a common snapping turtle. It got quite few likes and comments through various social media channels, including someone who expressed some dismay that we killed such an animal. “Turtles are endangered,” she wrote. I deal with such criticisms on a routine basis. They always come from what I assume to be well-meaning people who care about wildlife — though not quite enough to actually figure out what they’re talking about. This particular occasion made me want to take a few moments to discuss some aspects of terminology and taxonomy that are widely misunderstood.
First off, let’s look at the word “endangered.” From a practical standpoint, the litmus test for whether or not a species is endangered is whether or not it’s protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. In all, about 2,000 species have the unfortunate distinction of making “the list”, as its known. Those on the list are afforded two levels of protection depending on the severity of their endangerment. A species that is endangered is in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A species that is threatened has the potential of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. One can argue, and many do, that there species on the list that do not deserve to be there (grizzlies of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example) as well as some that should be on the list but aren’t (wolverines in the lower-48.)
If you’re distrustful of the Endangered Species Act and its implementation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (I generally don’t think there’s grounds for distrust, but let’s just say) you can always take a gander at the IUCN Red List, which is compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Red List places all species under one of nine labels: Not Evaluated; Data Deficient; Least Concern; Near Threatened; Vulnerable; Endangered; Critically Endangered; Extinct in the Wild; Extinct.
The common snapping turtle is an IUCN Species of Least Concern, meaning there’s adequate data to support the conclusion that it is widespread, abundant, and does not qualify for a more at-risk category. Also, it is not protected under the Endangered Species Act and has never been reviewed for protection under the act. If it was a federally listed “threatened” or “endangered” species, then it would be illegal for state fish and game agencies to allow any recreational harvest of snapping turtles. Instead, there are legal snapping turtle hunting, fishing and trapping seasons across the entirety of the animal’s range, which extends from Canada’s Nova Scotia to Florida and from eastern New Jersey to western Montana. In Kentucky, where the common snapping turtle that prompted this discussion was killed, the season of legal harvest is year-round.
Perhaps this particular critic of the photo was talking about some other species of turtle. That’d be understandable, though not necessarily excusable. After all, there are literally hundreds of species of freshwater turtles, seven species of sea turtles, and dozens of species of land-dwelling tortoises. Only a couple of these are commonly harvested for food in the United States. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s worth the effort. Especially if you don’t want to add to that regrettably long list of dumb asses who chime in on social media about things they know little to nothing about.