- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) - Eight young alligator snapping turtles - held carefully to avoid their nasty bites - have been released in southwest Louisiana as part of a state program to try to keep the reptiles off the federal endangered list.

The 3-year-old turtles released Monday in a state park north of Lake Charles ranged from 9 to 15 pounds, Amity Bass, manager of the department’s Natural Heritage Program, said in an email.

The turtles can grow to 220 pounds, making them North America’s largest freshwater turtles.

In Louisiana, the biggest problem appears to be that there are too few youngsters, so the turtles were raised at a Monroe hatchery until they were big enough to discourage most predators, a news release said.

They’re obtained from a turtle farm just after hatching - some bought and some donated - and are raised indoors for two years, then go into an outside pond during their third year, Bass said in an email Monday.

She said they grow much faster than they would in the wild, because they’re fed daily while indoors and fish are kept available in the outside pond. They average about 10 pounds at release, while 3-year-old wild turtles would average less than 5 pounds, Bass said in an email Tuesday.

Alligator snapping turtles have been called the dinosaurs of the turtle world. They have strong, hooked beaks and their shells have three serrated ridges along their backs, like the ridge down the center of an alligator’s back. They can stay on the bottoms of rivers, lakes and canals 40 to 50 minutes at a time - and spend so much time immobile that algae grow on their shells.

Their population has been dwindling throughout their range, including Louisiana, the heart of their territory. Louisiana was the last state in the reptiles’ range to protect the turtles, doing so in 2004. It doesn’t allow commercial harvest, but does allow some recreational catch.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether the turtles need federal protection.

Their long, snake-like necks can reach far down their shells and their bite can break bones and sever fingers, so they must be picked up with one hand gripping the shell just behind the neck and the other at the back of the shell.

Some of the turtles released Monday were hesitant at first and others had to be tossed into the water, KPLC-TV (https://bit.ly/1If7BSg) reported.

“That is to be expected. They’ve been basically trapped out of their home where they’ve spent the last year, transported down and then they spent the weekend in the office so they’ve been through a lot,” said Beau Gregory, a state zoologist.

The turtles are tagged to monitor their progress, with help from the public.

“We have a limited number of people so we always like to work with the public and anytime they can help us by calling in a tag or something like that we definitely appreciate it,” Gregory said.

The turtles rarely come out of the water, spending most of their time on the bottom with their mouths open so a worm-shaped bit of tongue acts as a fishing lure.

“Usually if somebody catches one it’ll be on a fishing line or a hoop net and they just have to use extra care and realize that their jaws are very powerful,” Bass said.

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