Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission is proposing a new rule that would ban the collection of certain non-endangered freshwater turtles on private property — without legislative approval and without much notice.

The proposed rule change comes in response to a petition sent to the Commission by a number of protectionist groups: Center for Biological Diversity, Texas Rivers Protection Association, the Sierra Club, and Texas Snake Initiative. While these groups’ main focus is protecting the biological diversity of Texas by informing and educating, this latest push to restrict what private property owners can do on their land is a step too far.

Under current state law, there are no limits on the collection of four native freshwater Turtle species — common snapping turtles, red-eared sliders, smooth softshells, and spiny softshells — on private land and water. In 2007, the state changed regulations to limit the collection of these species on public land and water, but now the group hopes to expand the regulation, amending state law to include private land.

These wild-caught turtles are collected for numerous reasons. Some are exported internationally for consumption and medicinal purposes, and many are kept here, stateside, to sell as pets or to breed and sell the offspring as pets.

The specific rule change would apply to Chapter 65 of the Texas Administrative Code and would essentially ban commercial collection of these animals on private land; the breeding of turtles collected on private land; certain methods of catching turtles on private land, including types of nets; and would create new regulations regarding documentation. The collection of the turtles to keep as pets would remain legal. However, a keeper could only keep six or less per species and, as previously mentioned, could not engage in commercial activity such as breeding them to sell their offspring.

“There will be adverse economic effects on small businesses, microbusinesses, and persons required to comply with the amendments as proposed, but no economic impacts on rural communities,” reads the proclamation. 

Turtles are the oldest living group of reptiles on the planet and, according to fossil evidence, survived for some 200 million years without regulation banning the collection of them. As of now, only a handlful of states have regulated the unlimited commercial collection of freshwater turtles. The Center for Biological Diversity said they expect border states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana to enact commercial collection bans if Texas acts first.

Even without further regulation, turtle collection in Texas is down.

In the 1990s, turtle collection peaked as Texas exported to fulfill the demands of the worldwide turtle market. Between 2002 and 2007, nearly 50,000 red-eared sliders and softshell turtles were collected from the wild in the state; however, in the last two years only 1,500 or so freshwater turtles were reportedly collected in Texas by those holding nongame dealer permits.

The petitioners allege that banning collection on private property is needed because only 2.2 percent of Texas turtles live on public lands and waters.

This change can mean unintended consequences for those who collect or breed freshwater turtles for a source of income. It also opens the door regarding enforcement. Will inspectors be able to enter private land to determine if a property owner is catching turtles?

There is reason to believe both the petitioners and the TPWC will seek to further regulate in the future. After the 2007 regulations were enacted, the same group submitted a petition in 2008 to further regulate turtle collection but was denied. TPWC, at that time, said they needed more time to assess the impact of the 2007 regulations. Now, years later, they are prepared to adopt more regulation.

The proposed rule change is also based on flawed science.

The group is basing their assumptions on a Texas A&M study that was supposed to run for five years but ended after four because of a loss of funding. They claim that, “the single best conclusion from the research conducted was that the current turtle harvest regulations in Texas are not likely sustainable,” but go on to say that the researchers weren’t able to obtain enough data to actually estimate the statewide number of freshwater turtles. So, the petition is based on an incomplete study.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office sent a letter to department heads trying to curb this regulatory overreach and telling them that new proposed rules must be run by him: “Prior to publication of a proposed rule in the Texas Register, the Office of the Governor will review the Notice of Proposed Rule as well as the agency’s internal analysis of the rule.” Abbott’s office also provided a template for agency heads to follow in doing so. Unfortunately, though, TPWC’s rule was originally proposed in March, months before Abbott’s memorandum came down.

The deadline to submit public comment on this rule is August 22 at 7:00 a.m. On the following day, August 23, the Commissioners will meet to vote on the rule change. Public comment up to three minutes is welcome at the meeting as well.

TPWC, as with many other departments, has the ability to pass administrative rules that essentially act as law. There’s no legislative vetting and no public official to hold accountable for these changes.

While this may be a big issue for those who collect turtles to breed, sell, or export, all Texans should be concerned that a state agency can unilaterally pass a statewide ban on activity on private property.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.