Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, March 16, 2016

Contact: Elise Pautler, (727) 755-6950,

Lawsuit Filed to Push Alligator Snapping Turtles Closer to Endangered Species Act Protection

Dinosaur-like Turtle Once Known From Midwest to Gulf Has Declined 95 Percent

ATLANTA The Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint today against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the agency’s delay in deciding whether to extend Endangered Species Act protection to the alligator snapping turtle. Known as the dinosaur of the turtle world, alligator snappers have powerful beaked jaws, huge claws, armored shells and thick scaly tails. These imperiled reptiles can weigh up to 200 pounds and live almost 100 years.

California tiger salamander
Photo by Gary Tucker, USFWS. Photos are available for media use.

The Center first petitioned for the turtle to be protected under the Endangered Species Act in July 2012 because habitat loss and other factors are threatening it with extinction.

“If we’re going to save the alligator snapping turtle, there’s no time to waste,” said Elise Pautler, reptile and amphibian staff attorney at the Center. “Right now these snappers’ best hope is the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

Early in the 20th century alligator snapping turtles were abundant in U.S. river systems draining into the Gulf of Mexico, from the waterways and lakes of the upper Midwest to the swamps and bayous of Florida, Louisiana and Texas. But recent population surveys show the turtles are now likely extirpated in Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, with declines of up to 95 percent over much of their historic range from overharvest and unchecked habitat degradation. A 2014 study revealed that the alligator snapping turtle is actually three different species and therefore even more endangered than previously thought. 

“The alligator snapping turtle is a clever hunter. It can spend up to 50 minutes underwater, enticing fish or frogs to come near with a worm-like lure on its tongue until it can snap them up in its powerful jaws,” said Pautler. “These turtles may look invincible, but they need our help to overcome the devastating impacts of pollution, habitat loss and overcollection for food and as pets.”

In July 2015 the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a “positive finding” on the petition for the turtle and initiated a status review. The Center then submitted extensive additional information on declines of the turtle’s populations, demonstrating the urgent need for protection. The Service is more than two and a half years late in making a final determination on whether the turtle should be given federal protection.

The alligator snapping turtle is one of 10 species the Center is prioritizing this year for Endangered Species Act protection decisions. Under a 2011 settlement agreement with the Service, the Center can seek expedited decisions on protection for 10 species per year. The other nine priority species for 2016 include the monarch butterfly, California spotted owl, Northern Rockies fisher, wood turtle, foothill yellow-legged frog, Virgin River spinedace, Canoe Creek pigtoe, Barrens topminnow and beaverpond marstonia. Under the settlement 144 species have gained protection to date, and 36 species have been proposed for protection.

View an interactive state-by-state map showing where you can find 52 reptile and amphibian species the Center is working to save; download a photo of the alligator snapping turtle for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 990,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Go back