Michael's Rediscovery of Nature

Ramblings and observations of a former biologist and a lifelong naturalist, who has recently returned to his roots in east Texas. After a many years of working from coast to coast in an industry far removed from biology, it has been a pleasant change of geography, activity, and attitude. No stressful job decked out in a three piece suit. No city living. Instead there is a rediscovery of the woods, of something scurrying through the leaves, of the clear notes of a bird call, and of reliving the joy that I had when nature was a playground and a classroom.

Where Are the Turtles?

I can't believe that it is hard to find a turtle in Lake O' the Pines.  I can't believe that I can stand on the dock and not see lots of heads bobbing in the water.  

LOP ElegantSliderWhen I was a kid, turtles were everywhere.  If you went to any body of water, turrle heads would be easy to spot.  I go down to the dock and walk along the water almost every day, sometimes several times a day.  In four months of doing this, do you know how many turtles I have seen?  How many heads?  Absolutely NONE.  Not one single turtle.  That is incredible.  And sad.  

Somewhere back around 2006, I had a friend who was involved heavily with the Sierra Club, and she made me aware of the problems with the turtle populations being decimated by exporters.  Hundreds of thousands of turtles were being trapped and sent to China where they are a delicacy.  She even when to testify for the bill that banned commercial "fishing" for turtles on public land which passed in 2007.  Unfortunatley, due to my absence from the outdoors, I did not see firsthand the impact.  Now, I am absolutely astounded.  

I do see turtles here and there.  In the Spring, I occasionally saw one crossing the road.  I know there are still some around, but the low numbers are hard to believe.  

One of my favorite things as a boy, was walking along the creek, watching for the little elegant sliders .  Starting around May or June, it was not difficult to find the babies sunning in the shallow water at the edge of the creek. I often had a few all summer.  Usually, I let them go when they got to be about 4" across and starting changing from bright green to dark grayish green.  

Interesting article about the disappearing turtles:  http://www.chron.com/life/article/Protecting-the-turtle-population-1695103.php  (Text below)



Kelli Haskettis in brown water almost to the top of her thigh-high rubber boots, wading toward a turtle trap in the bayou. She looks excited.

Haskett, the staff biologist atArmand Bayou Nature Center, knows one of two things could happen when she pulls the trap out of the water.

Maybe the trap will be light, and she'll be whacked by the stink of uneaten bait fish. But she's hoping the trap will be heavy.

Sometimes that means she's caught a crab or an alligator. Those she just lets go. What she wants are turtles.

She'd be happy with a cute little red-eared slider, one of the most common turtles in Armand Bayou. But really, she'd prefer one of the rarer snapping turtles — 20 pounds of biting meanness, extra-cranky after hours of being cooped up. Oddly, of the three types she's studying, snappers are the easiest kind for Haskett handle: to flip over and extract a blood sample, and to mark so that she can tell later whether it's been caught before.

And at least with snappers, Haskett isn't tempted to let her guard down. The big soft-shell turtles - the third of the three species she's studying - are harder to predict. With their leathery light-green shells and trunklike noses, they look like sea turtles from another planet. Lots of times, a soft-shell will be slow-moving and gentle, like the turtles you see in cartoons.

But not always. Other times, without warning, a soft-shell's long neck will whip around faster than you'd think a turtle could move, and its powerful jaws will clamp down on a careless biologist's arm.

Haskett is not careless. But she smiles to herself as she reaches for the trap. Maybe there'll be something in it that wants to bite her.

Turtle meat to China

Haskett and the Armand Bayou Nature Center are part of a Texas-wide study, a sort of turtle census launched by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department a few years ago, soon after Texans realized that our native turtles could be in serious trouble.

Of course, turtles were suffering from urbanization and loss of habitat. Wildlife biologists expected that, with the same certainty that they know a snapping turtle will try to bite. But another threat, as unexpected as a soft-shell's bite, snuck up on them: The Asian market for turtle meat.

In the last decades, as average incomes shot up in China and its neighbors, so did the average Asian's consumption of meat of all kinds - including a traditional delicacy: turtle.

First, China depleted its own turtle population. Then it turned to its neighbors: Burma, Vietnam, Borneo, Java and Sumatra. Around three-quarters of Asia's 90 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles are now said to be threatened.

The Chinese market turned to Texas, which didn't regulate turtle-hunting at all, and to entrepreneurs like "Bayou Bob" Popplewell, owner of the Brazos River Rattlesnake Ranch south of Dallas. In Amway-like "turtles for cash" meetings, Popplewell recruited more than 400 members to his co-op.

How much of a hit did Texas' turtle population take? It's hard to say. The statistic most often cited is from theDallas/Fort Worth International Airport: In 2004, 122,610 turtles were exported through that airport alone; most of them were shipped to Hong Kong.

Biologists warned that North American turtles could be depleted just like Asia's, and in 2007 Texas Parks & Wildlife hurriedly made regulations. Now hunters can bag only three kinds of turtles - red-eared sliders, snappers and soft-shells - and can do so only on private land.

Are those rules enough? Some activists worry that they aren't: 97 percent of Texas land is privately held; the rules are hard to enforce; and there aren't a lot of wardens around to enforce them.

But without hard data, it's hard to say whether Texas turtles are still disappearing too fast. And that's why Haskett is wading in the bayou.

Turtle nerd

Haskett's data will go toTexas State UniversitybiologistMichael Forstner, the head of the statewide study.

Forstner, a self-proclaimed "turtle nerd," is as ebullient as Haskett is quiet, and he's happy to talk about the difficulties of studying turtle populations.

For instance, to figure out how many turtles are likely to be in a given body of water, he and his co-investigators needed to know what percentage escape the study's traps. So they ran their traps in several ponds, then pumped those ponds dry. And for three days at each pond, researchers crawled around in the mud, catching turtles and checking how many bore the marks showing they'd been caught.

Forstner turns reticent, though, when asked what his numbers show about Texas' turtle population. He's a scientist, after all. The statewide study hasn't yet been underway for three years, and it's hard to come by good scientific turtle counts more than a decade old. Without long-term data, he hesitates to draw a sweeping conclusion.

But he knows enough to worry. One of the rare older data sets comes from the 1970s, when a graduate student trapped turtles in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, at the south tip of Texas.

Recently researchers reproduced that student's study. And, says Forstner, they found "dramatically fewer turtles."

He can't say whether that's because of trapping or because development has destroyed their habitat. But either way, the upshot is the same: Texas' turtles are disappearing.

Empty traps

Out in Armand Bayou, Haskett pulls the trap - and gets nothing but the stink of bait fish.

For trap after trap, the rest of the day goes like that: All 25 are empty. Neither Haskett nor anyone working with her catches anything.

Haskett, like Forstner, takes a scientist's rational view of the world. She knows that a single day's data doesn't prove that Texas' turtles are disappearing - that it doesn't prove anything at all.

But knowing something intellectually is one thing; feeling it in your gut is another. She trudges back to the center's air-conditioned offices. She takes off her heavy boots. And she resigns herself to a day without turtles.

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I miss the turtles. . . 

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