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Cold-blooded critters' pipeline may shut

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The pipeline that funneled untold numbers of snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs and salamanders out of West Virginia might finally be closing.

State wildlife officials have proposed regulations to limit the number of reptiles and amphibians taken by collectors. If approved, the regulations would end West Virginia's status as a legal vacuum where unlimited numbers of creatures could be collected and sold for pets or for food.

"These regulations have been needed for a long time," said Barb Sargent, Natural Heritage Program coordinator for the state Division of Natural Resources. "West Virginia has long had a reputation as being a 'black hole' where there was very little protection for reptiles and amphibians."

Before the new regulations were proposed, the only laws on the books were fishing regulations that set bag limits for frogs and turtles collected for food, and then only on a handful of species.

"We had limits on bullfrogs and green frogs, and on snapping turtles and spiny softshell turtles. That left a whole bunch of species unprotected," Sargent said.

Simply by purchasing a fishing license, a collector could legally fill a truck with frogs and turtles for which there were no bag limits.

Sargent said the severity of the problem became apparent in 2008, when someone noticed three men collecting a lot of turtles.

"There is a season on turtles, and they were collecting out of season," she added. "They were arrested, and [investigators] found they had more than $250,000 worth of turtles and other reptiles in their possession."

When apprehended, the three men -- all from Florida -- had 108 wood turtles, four Eastern box turtles and six snapping turtles in their vehicle. The idea, according to investigators, was to take the turtles back to Florida, allow the females to lay their eggs, and sell the baby turtles as pets.

"Fortunately the men were caught taking the turtles across the state line into Virginia, so it became a federal offense," Sargent said. "They were convicted in federal court, and received much more appropriate sentences than they would have received [from local magistrates] for taking turtles out of season."

West Virginia's absence of regulations not only allowed its wildlife to be exploited -- it also created headaches for law enforcement officials in surrounding states.

"Whenever someone got questioned about having a lot of reptiles or amphibians in their possession, all he had to do was say, 'I got them in West Virginia,' " Sargent said.

That could change as early as April, when members of the state Natural Resources Commission will likely approve, modify or turn down the regulations.

If approved, the regulations would allow state residents to possess up to four of most species of reptiles and amphibians. Exceptions would include bullfrogs, green frogs, snapping turtles and eastern spiny softshell turtles, which each would maintain a daily creel limit of 10 and possession limit of 20.

The other notable exceptions are the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead, which would carry a possession limit of one each.

Several "species of concern" would be illegal to take or possess. Those would include five turtle species: wood turtles, spotted turtles, northern map turtles, Ouachita map turtles and midland smooth softshell turtles.

Thirteen amphibians would be on the no-take list: eastern hellbenders, mudpuppies, Cheat Mountain salamanders, white-spotted salamanders, Shenandoah Mountain salamanders, smallmouth salamanders, streamside salamanders, green salamanders, West Virginia spring salamanders, eastern spadefoot toads, northern cricket frogs and northern leopard frogs.

DNR biologists deliberately left a couple of salamander species off the prohibited list even though their scarcity probably should have put them there.

"For example, the black-bellied salamander has a limited range, but it's also used for bait by people who fish in the New River Gorge area," Sargent explained. "So we reluctantly put it on the 'take' list."

Representatives of the DNR's Wildlife Diversity, Law Enforcement, and Wildlife Resources units worked together on the regulations. Tom Pauley, the renowned Marshall University herpetologist, was the agency's "main outside source" for information about many of the species.

Anyone caught violating the regulations would be charged with violating Chapter 20, the portion of the state code that governs fish- and wildlife-related regulations.

Sargent believes the regulations, though long overdue, should help keep West Virginians' wildlife from being exploited by outsiders.

"Illegal trade [in reptiles and amphibians] is huge, and it's growing," she said. "Some of it is for the pet trade, and some of it is for the food trade.

"The people who are coming in here and robbing West Virginia of its wildlife aren't sportsmen, they're profiteers. These regulations should make it more difficult for them to operate."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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