What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposing?
The Service is announcing the 12-month findings on a petition to list the Pascagoula map turtle (Graptemys gibbonsi) and Pearl River map turtle (Graptemys pearlensis) as endangered or threatened species and a request to designate critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service finds that listing the Pearl River map turtle is warranted and is proposing to list the species as threatened with a rule issued under section 4(d) of the ESA to provide for its conservation. The Service is also proposing to list the Pascagoula, Alabama, Barbour’s, and Escambia map turtles as threatened due to similarity in appearance to the Pearl River map turtle. Section 4(d) rules are also being proposed for the Pascagoula, Alabama, Barbour’s and Escambia map turtles. Because the Pearl River map turtle is threatened by collection, the Service has determined that the designation of critical habitat is not prudent.
What are map turtles and where do they occur?
Map turtles are medium-sized freshwater turtles (males, 3-5 inches long; females, 6-10 inches long) that are named for the intricate, map-like patterns on the tops of their shells, known as the carapace.
The Pearl River map turtle’s range includes the Pearl River system in Mississippi and Louisiana.
The Pascagoula map turtle’s range includes the Pascagoula River system in Mississippi and Alabama.
The Alabama map turtle’s range includes the Mobile River system in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee; and the Tennessee River system in Mississippi.
The Barbour’s map turtle’s range includes the Wacissa River system in Florida; the Ochlockonee River system in Florida and Georgia; the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint (ACF) Rivers system in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia; and the Choctawhatchee River system in Alabama and Florida.
The Escambia map turtle’s range includes the Escambia River, Yellow River, and Choctawhatchee River systems in Alabama and Florida.
Range map for the Pearl River map turtle, Pascagoula map turtle, Alabama map turtle, Barbour’s map turtle, and Escambia map turtle across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Photo Credit: USFWS.
Why are these listing actions being proposed?
Faced with the possibility of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range, the Pearl River map turtle has met the definition of a threatened species under the ESA. Currently it is estimated that there are only around 21,000 of these turtles left in the wild. Threats such as habitat loss and degradation (i.e., channel and hydrological modifications and impoundments; removal or loss of deadwood; declines in water quality from agricultural run-off; development; and mining), the effects of sea level rise, drought, and flooding, and turtle harvesting are pervasive across the species’ range. Lack of historical data makes population trends difficult to assess for the Pearl River map turtle but recent data and future projections to the year 2070 indicate that populations of the Pearl River map turtle will become increasingly isolated. This leads to inbreeding and loss of gene flow. Sea level rise threatens to shrink populations even more as encroachment of saline waters from the Gulf of Mexico reduces available freshwater habitats. These effects will be magnified with hurricane-related storm surges into freshwater systems.
To further protect the Pearl River map turtle, the Service is also proposing to list the Alabama map turtle, Barbour’s map turtle, Escambia map turtle, and Pascagoula map turtle as threatened due to similarity of appearance to the Pearl River map turtle. To most people, all five species of these map turtles are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The similarity of these species and the difficulty in identifying them poses a problem for Federal and State law enforcement agents trying to stem unauthorized collection of the Pearl River map turtle; thus, the need to propose the Alabama, Barbour’s, Escambia, and Pascagoula map turtles as threatened due to similarity of appearance.
What does it mean to list a species as similar in appearance?
Section 4(e) of the ESA allows for the treatment of a species, subspecies, or population segment as endangered or threatened under the following circumstances:
If a species closely resembles (in appearance) a species which has been listed and there would be substantial difficulty in differentiating between the listed and unlisted species;
If the effect of this substantial difficulty is an additional threat to an endangered or threatened species;
If the treatment of the unlisted species will substantially facilitate enforcement of the ESA and further the policy of the ESA.
While a designation of threatened due to similarity of appearance under section 4(e) of the ESA for the Alabama, Barbour’s, Escambia, and Pascagoula map turtles does not extend other protections of the ESA to them (such as consultation requirements for Federal agencies and recovery planning provisions), all applicable prohibitions and exceptions for these species are addressed in a section 4(d) rule which is being proposed for all the map turtles included in this proposed listing.
What is a 4(d) rule? What does the rule entail for these species?
For threatened species, the Service uses the flexibility provided under section 4(d) of the ESA to tailor take prohibitions for the conservation of the species. This targeted approach helps reduce regulatory burdens by exempting certain activities that do not significantly harm the species, or that are beneficial, while focusing conservation efforts on the threats detrimental to recovery.
For the Pearl River map turtle, the 4(d) rule will provide for its conservation by prohibiting the following across its range: importing or exporting wild-caught individuals; take; possession, sale, delivery, carrying, transporting, or shipping of unlawfully taken specimens from any source; delivering, receiving, transporting, or shipping wild-caught individuals in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of commercial activity; and selling or offering for sale wild-caught or farm brood stock individuals in interstate or foreign commerce.
Several exceptions to the prohibitions above are being proposed. Those exceptions are: take incidental to any otherwise lawful activity caused by pesticide and herbicide use; construction, operation, and maintenance activities that implement industry and/or State-approved best management practices accordingly; silviculture practices and forestry activities that implement industry and/or State-approved best management practices accordingly; and maintenance dredging that affects previously disturbed portions of the maintained channel. Take is also being exempted for Tribal members/employees.
For the Alabama, Barbour’s, Escambia, and Pascagoula map turtles, the proposed 4(d) rule will provide a conservation benefit to the Pearl River map turtle by instituting the same prohibitions for the Pearl River map turtle, as outlined above. This proposed 4(d) rule will also not consider instances of incidental take of these similarity of appearance turtles as violations of section 9 of the ESA for otherwise lawful activities, as outlined above, as they will not pose a threat to the Pearl River map turtle.
Are people still going to be able to collect or possess map turtles?
Currently, some legal collection is allowed in Mississippi and Louisiana. However, a final rule to list these species would prohibit the collection of these turtles. Possession of pre-ESA listed Alabama map turtles, Barbour’s map turtles, Escambia map turtles, and Pascagoula map turtles by private persons or entities would be allowed in compliance with all applicable Federal permits and regulations.
Why is the Service not designating critical habitat for the Pearl River map turtle?
The Service has determined that proposing critical habitat for the Pearl River map turtle would not be prudent as the species is threatened by turtle harvesting. Listing the Pearl River map turtle under the ESA may promote further interest in black market sales of the turtles and increase the likelihood that the species will be sought out for the pet trade as demand rises. Since the Pearl River map turtle co-occurs with three other federally listed species – the Gulf sturgeon, ringed map turtle, and inflated heelsplitter mussel - consultations that reduce or mitigate impacts to these species will provide conservation benefits to the Pearl River map turtle. Additionally, designated critical habitat for the Gulf sturgeon, which includes areas of the Pearl River and Bogue Chitto River where the Pearl River map turtle occurs, affords the turtle some ancillary protections
How do I comment on this proposal?
Comments on the proposed rule must be received by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on January 24, 2022. We must receive requests for public hearings, in writing, at the address shown in FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT by January 7, 2022.
You may submit comments by one of the following methods:
(1) Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS–R4–ES–2021–0097, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then, click on the Search button. On the resulting page, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, check the Proposed Rule box to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
(2) By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2021–0097, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.
We request that you send comments only by the methods described above. We will post all comments on http://www.regulations.gov. This generally means that we will post any personal information you provide us.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339.