Turtles Hanging in the Balance

In Iowa, we have many different ecosystems that provide diverse communities of plants, animals, predators and prey. Wild turtles in Iowa—including the painted turtle, snapping turtle, smooth softshell turtle and spiny softshell turtle—play a huge role in our aquatic ecosystems. Turtles live in rivers, creeks, streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands in Iowa. But what would happen if turtles were no longer a part of those ecosystems?

Molly Hanson, Executive Director of Iowa Rivers Revival, explains just how important turtles are in their environment. “Their eggs provide food for a lot of different animals. They eat a lot of insects and certain fish in the water and help maintain those populations,” explained Molly. “When you see species diminishing, what is the chain reaction that that can cause?” The aquatic food web in Iowa could change for years to come if turtle populations decreased.


Where Have All the Turtles Gone?

For several years, Molly noted, biologists and paddlers have been seeing fewer turtles in the wild. Not only were there fewer turtles, but the turtles appeared smaller and younger, meaning that fewer turtles were reaching full maturity so that they could reproduce.

The pressure on turtles comes from many sources. Since 1987, Iowa has seen a seven-fold increase in commercial turtle harvesting from 29,000 pounds of turtles harvested in 1987 to over 200,000 pounds in more recent years. These turtles are shipped to Asia, where turtle meat is popular and overharvesting has already decreased Asian turtle populations. In addition to commercial harvesting, turtles in Iowa have lost habitat as wetlands disappear and water quality decreases in rivers, lakes and streams.

Sparking a Connection

Molly has always loved animals, but her love for turtles began when she started doing environmental education for county conservation boards across the state. “There were always program animals to care for and take into classrooms. The box turtles were my favorite,” Molly commented. To share that love for animals and nature with kids, she stressed that kids have to see how the world works in nature.

“Those experiences that you have as a kid growing up really do shape you. You have to have that ‘aha’ moment to care,” Molly reflected. “Someone has to spark it in you.” Teachers, parents, grandparents and other role models can help to produce that spark that connects kids and nature.

Sparks can also happen in the classroom. Water Rocks! has a classroom learning module called "Biodiversity Bonanza" that teaches students about ecosystems and the importance of biodiversity (request a classroom visit). Your local county conservation board might also offer programming that teaches kids about the outdoor world through a classroom visit or a field trip.


Be Part of the Change

Up until 2016, commercial trappers could take an unlimited amount of turtles at any time during the year from Iowa’s water bodies. Other states surrounding Iowa have begun to limit turtle harvesting, which has increased commercial trapping activity in Iowa.

In spring of 2016, Molly helped get a bill signed by Governor Terry Branstad that will bring much-needed change. This bill allowed the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to draft rules that will create a turtle season in which sport fisherman and commercial hunters can harvest turtles between July 1 and December 31. Limiting the season will protect turtles during nesting and egg-laying. Daily limits on the number of turtles that commercial trappers can capture will also be established. Molly added, “Everything has a season and a limit in the sportsmen world. It’s not sporting if you just take them all.”

The rules, however, are not yet final. A bill allowing the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to create these rules passed the state legislature in the spring of 2016. IDNR has drafted the rules and has held a comment period. The final rules have not yet been approved by the Governor’s office.

To find out what you can do to help, visit Iowa Rivers Revival's Save Iowa's Wild Turtles page for more information. You can hear more about turtles and conservation by listening to an interview with Molly on the Iowa Learning Farms’ Conservation Chat podcast series.