By John Urquhart

With its large shell – up to 47 centimetres in length – and the series of triangular spikes lining its tail, the snapping turtle looks prehistoric, and it is. Sadly, Ontario’s biggest and longest-lived turtle – estimates based on size and growth rates suggest snapping turtles could live to be over 150 years old – is in decline due to road-kill and habitat loss. Both Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the federal Species at Risk Act list the snapping turtle as a species of special concern. Nevertheless, the animal is still legally hunted as game in Ontario, as the ESA prohibits the killing only of species designated as threatened or endangered. Indeed, a person may kill up to two snapping turtles per day over the course of two to 12 months, depending on where the turtles are hunted.

Several years ago, the Ontario Multi-Species Turtles at Risk Recovery Team recommended that the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) outlaw the hunting of snapping turtles on the basis of the team’s findings that killing the turtles, even in low numbers, will significantly diminish the likelihood of the species’ survival. Alarmed that a species at risk was being legally hunted, Ontario Nature members passed a resolution in 2009 requesting that MNR remove the snapping turtle from the provincial Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act game list.

The following year, Ontario Nature filed a request for a policy review, under the Environmental Bill of Rights, of the hunting regulation. Last February, MNR denied Ontario Nature’s request, claiming that the hunt was sustainable, even though the ministry has no recent data to substantiate its claim and does not monitor the hunt.

The decision to permit the hunting of snapping turtles flies in the face of scientific evidence. Increases in the death rate of adult snapping turtles can have an extremely negative effect on populations of this species. These turtles begin laying eggs when they are nearly 20 years old, and on average only seven of 10,000 eggs laid will survive to adulthood. Studies have shown that an increase of even 1 percent in adult mortality could eventually wipe out an entire population of snapping turtles. Having survived for thousands of years, the snapping turtle may now become locally extinct because of poorly thought out policy.