CENTER - It is cruddy, muddy work that requires a frequent inventory of fingers and toes. Trapping and tagging snapping turtles is not exactly the ideal summer job, unless you prefer reaching for caged critters with lousy dispositions.
A snapper can make short work of digits within reach of its powerful jaws. Its lengthy claws are nothing to take lightly either. Getting close to them is risky business, certainly not for everyone. Maybe that's why not much is know about the life history of snapping turtles in North Dakota.
"No, we really don't know a whole lot about them. Our information is pretty inconsistent," said Pat Isaakson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department non-game biologist. "There is some indication in certain parts of the country that they are in decline."
Chris Dekker, Moscow, Idaho, began research on North Dakota snapping turtles this summer. This hefty snapper was captured at Nelson Lake.
While the exact status of snapping turtles in North Dakota is not known, more is being learned. Chris Dekker, a student at the University of Idaho, chose a study of North Dakota snapping turtles as his masters research project. NDG&F secured a funding source and has endorsed Dekker's project. Zachary Kjos of Williston is assisting Dekker in the two-year project. Kjos is a student at the University of North Dakota.
The duo was recently trapping snappers at Nelson Lake near Center. A large snapping turtle was captured in a trap net, retrieved, and outfitted with both a radio transmitter and an orange tag about the size of a half-dollar.
"We hope to get radio transmitters on 15 of them," said Decker while carefully watching a large snapper lying on the bottom of the small Jon boat in which he was seated. "What we'll do is track them in wintertime to see where they winter, because they do winter under the ice and in tributaries. They each will have their own individual frequency so we can track them."
The team will also follow as many snappers as possible in the spring to ascertain where the powerful turtles nest and lay eggs. Although an attempt to capture snappers is being made at several North Dakota lakes this summer, Nelson Lake is one of only three lakes in which snappers will be fitted with radio transmitters. However, all snappers caught in the next two years will be outfitted with a specific contact number located on a bright orange tag.
Snappers occasionally turn up in Game and Fish nets and are released. In the future, if fisheries biologists encounter a snapper in a net and it is tagged, they will record the information so that it can become part of the state's database on snapping turtles. Painted turtles are not part of the current study but those incidentally captured are also being given identification tags.
"We want to know what our turtles in North Dakota are doing. Part of that is developing a way for our fisheries guys to add snapping turtles and get useable data when we do catch them," said Isaakson. "It'll help us in the future if there comes a time when we do need to do conservation measures."
Snappers are the largest of the state's turtles. The heaviest snapper caught by Dekker as of 10 days ago was a 47-pounder. He says catching snappers weighing in excess of 50 pounds would not be unexpected.
The two turtle men still had all their fingers and toes during netting at Nelson Lake earlier this month, but did say they have had a couple of close calls with snappers. Snappers are known for their prickly disposition, especially when disturbed. Removing them from a net requires a least one member of the team to get into the water with the turtle. Thus far angry snappers have only been able to clamp onto loose clothing, but the pair remains very respectful of the turtle's enormously powerful jaws.
Traps nets are baited with chopped up carp and other carrion to lure turtles. The concoction makes for an easy meal for snappers, which feed on plant or animal, dead or alive. Fishermen occasionally encounter snappers that snap up bait when presented to them. The limit on snapping turtles is two per season. However, most fishermen will cut their fishing line rather than risk grappling with a huge snapper.
Dekker says he hopes to wrap up field work by August of next year. Then he'll begin the business of compiling statistical data and producing a profile of snapping turtle activity in North Dakota.
"Chris will get some good info on snapping turtles from four regions of the state," said Isaakson. "We'll obtain some good life-history data, some that has been lacking for North Dakota."