Snapping turtles involved in illegal trafficking case returned to natural habitat

Alligator snapping turtles have been protected in Texas since the 1970s.

Twenty-one adult, and six juvenile, alligator snapping turtles were recently released back into East Texas as part of a coordinated effort among Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Stephen F. Austin State University, Sabine River Authority, Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Houston Zoo, and the Turtle Survival Alliance, among others, after being seized in an illegal trafficking attempt.

In 2017, Texas Game Wardens, in coordination with the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, investigated the poaching of alligator snapping turtles. Large turtles up to 150 pounds were being poached in Texas and transported into Louisiana, which is a federal Lacey Act violation. Alligator snapping turtles are a popular food item with a restricted limit of one per day in Louisiana. This has led to a smaller population of the species in Louisiana, along with poaching in Texas where harvest is illegal.

Two brothers – Travis Leger of Sulphur, La., and Jason Leckelt of Wilburton, Okla., were sentenced to 21 months and 16 months, respectively, in federal court in Beaumont, Texas, in December 2017. A third defendant, Rickey Simon, also of Sulphur, La., was sentenced to three years of probation.

On August 22, 2017, Leger, Leckelt, and Simon all pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge.  As part of his guilty plea, Travis Leger admitted to selling a live, illegally taken 171-pound turtle, for $1,000 and another live, illegally taken 168-pound turtle, for $500 in May and June of 2016.  The turtles were later seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agents from the buyer.  Simon admitted that he sold an illegally-trafficked, 120-pound turtle to an undercover Special Agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on May 19, 2016.

Following their seizure by law enforcement, the turtles were transported to East Texas from the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery in Louisiana.

“Alligator snapping turtles have been protected in Texas since the 1970s,” said Meredith Longoria, Deputy Director of the TPWD Wildlife Division. “We have a unique opportunity to not only return these turtles to their range in Texas from which they were taken, but also to learn more about their habits and their biology so that we can more effectively conserve Texas populations to ensure their viability for generations to come.”

“I am very proud of the Service’s role in helping to rescue these alligator snapping turtles from the illegal wildlife trafficking market and return them back to where they belong in East Texas,” said Amy Lueders, the Service’s Southwest Regional Director. “I also want to acknowledge the teamwork of everyone who made this return possible: from our own Service law enforcement, hatchery and ecological services staff to the TPWD, river authority, university and non-profit organization staff who provided their time, funding and logistical support to get these living dinosaurs back into the wild. The success of this project demonstrates our shared commitment to protecting and conserving wildlife in Texas.”

TPWD Nongame and Rare Species Program staff have worked with turtle researchers across Texas and the Turtle Survival Alliance to support the development of a genetic analysis on all of the turtles that were released in order to determine the river basin where they originated. In addition, veterinarians evaluated each turtle to ensure the health of the species and fitted each with radio telemetry tags to allow researchers to monitor the turtle’s survival, habitat use, and movement throughout their lives.

More information about nongame and rare species in Texas, including species listed as threatened or endangered, can be found on the Wildlife Diversity page of the TPWD website.

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