Celebration for Ontario's Snappers

by Chris Clark 

On Friday, June 15, 2017, turtle conservation advocates in Ontario, Canada and around the world raised a celebratory glass of champagne to the iconic Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)! Organized and hosted by the Turtle Survival Alliance's Chairman of the Board, Patricia Koval, and the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC), with guests of honor including members of government, turtle advocates, researchers, conservationists, and Paddy, the OTCC's ambassador Snapping Turtle, this event, signified a major victory in the preservation of this species; a victory over a decade in the making.

Leaders with Paddy

Left to Right: Minister McGarry, Dr. Sue Carstairs, Monte Hummel, Patricia Koval, and Alan Koval smile with Paddy the Snapping Turtle.

As early as 2005, the Ontario Multi-Species Turtles At-Risk Recovery Team (OMSTARRT) began developing a rationale for the closure of harvest for this "Species of Special Concern" in the province according to Ontario chelonian conservationist and OMSTARRT member Scott Gillingwater. Through the foresight and long-term research of Dr. Ronald J. Brooks, the Snapping Turtle gained the scientific and political attention necessary to pursue such an effort. Although the initial rationale was well-received by most when presented in 2008, no changes to the regulations on the Snapping Turtle harvest were made, and Snapping Turtles continued to be removed from the wild (2 individuals per-person, per-day) for personal use.

Sue Carstairs Talk 600

Dr. Sue Carstairs speaks to the attendees.In 2012, OMSTARRT, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature, and the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre), among others, renewed their fight against the Snapping Turtle harvest. This time, with the help of thousands of petitioners, a small victory was claimed in that the reporting of the number of harvested Snapping Turtles was required by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF). However, the advocates continued to argue that, based on extensive research into the life-history, including the age of maturation (up to 20 years), and overall low reproductive success for the species in Ontario (0.07 % over their lifetime), combined with other natural and anthropogenic impacts on the turtles and their habitats, any harvest of Snapping Turtles was not only unsustainable, but detrimental to long-term survivorship of the species in the Province.

Donnell Gasbarrini 300

Donnell Gasbarrini educates guests about the turtles of Ontario.Four years after this initial minor change to the harvest regulations of Snapping Turtles, the assemblage of turtle conservation advocates found a new legal way to pressure the OMNRF into permanently banning the harvest. In November 2016, the groups focused their efforts on gaining public support for an all-out ban on Snapping Turtle harvest by utilizing an amendment process to the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. In this focused effort, they also found a friend and supporter in the OMNRF's Minister, Kathryn McGarry. The result? On April 1, 2017, with the help of over 13,460 public commenters, Minister McGarry, and the diligence of the province's turtle advocates, the Snapping Turtle harvest was officially banned!

Raising A Glass

Over 75 attendees raise their glasses to Snapping Turtles!Over two-months and many invitations later, on the 33rd floor of a skyscraper in the epicenter of Ontario's capital, Toronto, over 75 attendees raised their glasses of champagne to the triumph of a decade-long fight for Ontario's Snapping Turtles. Holding their glasses in the air were such important proponents of this legislation as Minister Kathryn McGarry, Patricia Koval, Dr. Sue Carstairs, Monte Hummel, Marc Dupuis-Désormeaux, Donnell Gasbarrini, and many other passionate individuals and organizational representatives. The crowd listened intently as both Minister McGarry and Dr. Carstairs gave inspirational talks regarding the future for turtles, wildlife, and implementing new measures for wetland protection in Ontario. The attendees even got to mingle with Paddy, an educational ambassador, and one of the most-docile Snapping Turtles one will ever interact with!

Paddy the Snapper 600

Paddy the Snapping Turtle poses for photos while exploring the floor.

Despite this specific legislation affecting only the Snapping Turtles of Ontario, it is, as TSA Board Member Hugh Quinn noted, a model for decreasing or eliminating the harvest of Snapping Turtles throughout their range. In Canada, the Snapping Turtle also resides in Saskatchewan, Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, with only Saskatchewan still allowing a legal hunt of this species. In the United States, the Snapping Turtle is native to 41 of our 50 states, and has introduced breeding populations in 3 others. In the majority of these combined 44 states, protection for the Snapping Turtle is minimal to absent, and both commercial and non-commercial harvest continues. The success of Ontario Snapping Turtle advocates has created a model by which this species can be protected throughout North America.

With continued leadership and support, it will only be a matter of time before the last Canadian Province and many American States will be raising a glass to Snapping Turtles!

P.S. As an addition to the amazing support the OTCC and the turtles of Ontario have received, two independent filmmakers, Scott Dobson and Jono Nemethy have co-produced a documentary entitled "Fix and Release", focusing on the conservation of Ontario's turtles by the OTCC. This documentary has already won award in Canada and Australia and will be released in the United States this Summer! To watch the trailer, CLICK HERE!