Turtle Protection Bill passes and is signed by the governor

When a bill passes by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, like the turtle harvesting bill did in both the Iowa House and Senate, one might assume it was easy to persuade lawmakers and the governor to act. Not necessarily. Thanks to Mike Delaney for an in-depth look at how one good idea became state law. Delaney is a founder of the non-profit Raccoon River Watershed Association. Turtle graphic produced by the non-profit Iowa Rivers Revival. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Over the years I have noticed a decline in the number of Soft-shelled turtles on my sandbars along the Raccoon River in Dallas County. When I first bought my farm in 1988 12” and 14” Soft-shells would regularly slide into the river off the sand where they were warming their cold-blooded bodies. A few seconds later you could see their noses and foreheads pop up to look around. When my son and daughter were little I showed them (as my older brothers had shown me as a child) how to walk along the shore at night, focus a flashlight at the water’s edge and spot the heads of baby Softshells sticking out of the sand. However, we have not seen these little guys for many years.

I asked around about what happened to the turtles. County conservation folks told me that the commercial turtle trappers were selling them to China. I asked some “environmentally concerned” friends. One said that the DNR was worried about Iowa’s turtles and had proposed rules to limit turtle “harvest” during egg laying season and limits on the numbers that could be taken. Iowa had no rules preventing over-harvest of turtles. I was told that the rules were being held up in the governor’s office.

I decided to act on the matter.

I am a founder of the Raccoon River Watershed Association that is dedicated to protecting the health of the river and the watershed. Turtles are an important part of a healthy lake and river ecosystem. I am president of Citizens for a Healthy Iowa that focuses on environmental policy. And, I am the lobbyist for the State Izaak Walton League. The Ikes have fought for nature for over 90 years in Iowa. Aldo Leopold and Ding Darling were members. So, I had some networks to work with.

Iowa has many conservation organizations. Unfortunately, polluters and nature destroyers have been able to “DIVIDE AND CONQUER!” How? The Dove Hunting bill! For years, hunters had been trying to get Senator Dearden, (chair of the Natural Resources an Environment committee in the Iowa Senate), to run a dove hunting bill. Some hunters wanted to hunt doves. Senator Dearden was one of them. The Audubon Society and Sierra Club and others fought the bill for years. It became very emotional. The Dove is a symbol of peace. Lovebirds are Doves. They come to the feeders. Why would someone want to shoot such a small bird? Etc. Dove hunting was legal in surrounding states. It is a sport like quail hunting. Hunters argued that they live only a year or so and that the states with Dove hunting still have plenty of Doves. It got ugly and divisive.

When I got involved with the Izaak Walton League I was already a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. I knew the arguments from both sides. I wanted to see the issue resolved so that conservation minded folks could come together and create the political and social power necessary to take on the Farm Bureau, Pork Producers, Corn Growers, Soy Bean Association and Industrial Ag in general so that our lakes and rivers could be saved from further degradation.

Senator Dearden came up with a plan. He used some stealth tactics, without including me, and got the Dove Hunting Bill passed. So the hunters got their Dove bill. However, there were rules put in place to protect the population from decimation. I don’t believe dove numbers are suffering in Iowa today. Not many hunters can hit them with their shotguns and most don’t care to try.

Game rules are necessary. Iowans ate a lot wild game since pioneer days. By the 1920’s some species were completely extirpated and the Passenger Pigeons that used to darken the sky during migrations, were extinct. Deer were almost gone, too. So, Ding Darling got Iowa to create the Department of Natural Resources (called The Fish and Game Commission at the time). Aldo Leopold was hired to do a game survey. So, with proper legislation and good management much of our game and other wildlife have been brought back. Deer, Otters, Geese, Pheasants, Quail, Eagles are among them.

But, as I said, turtles have had no protection. With the rise of Chinese wealth they began to eat more meat including turtle meat. Turtles in China were nearly all eaten. So, they looked for imports. Iowa turtle trappers began to fill the demand.

Twelve states around Iowa have a ban on turtle trapping or they have limits on when they can be trapped to protect the reproducing females. Turtles take about a dozen years on average to reproduce a generation. Baby turtles have a very low survival rate. Lots of animals and fish like to eat baby turtles. So, it was not long before turtle populations crashed where trappers were most active. As they moved up the rivers and across the state folks who fish and paddle began to notice that the turtles were disappearing from the ecosystem.

The DNR studied the turtle disappearance and concluded that the rate of taking turtles could not be sustained. The department proposed rules that have to pass the governor’s new economic impact study committee. The rules were held up in Governor Branstad’s office for over a year.

Last year some friends and I organized a letter writing campaign directed at the governor’s office. Nothing happened. Evidently, the commercial turtle trappers had friends in high places. Over 100 tons of turtles were leaving Iowa each year. It was no wonder people noticed.

Prior to this legislative session, which began in January, some friends were able to get a turtle protection bill written. Representative Scott Ourth of Warren County said he would introduce the bill and work to get it passed. I was in Mexico when the session started. When I got to “The Hill” (the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines) Representative Ourth was upset. He said that he was expending a lot of “political capital” (a measure of power) on this turtle bill. The turtle trappers were lobbying his colleagues very hard in the Iowa House of Representatives telling them that there were plenty of turtles and that there was no need for this “government over-reach” I told him that I would work on it.

Last summer I put “turtle trapping” on the agenda of the Iowa Conservation Alliance annual meeting. The ICA is a “hook and bullet” organization made up of hunting and fishing organizations like: Bow Hunters, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Whitetail Society, Turkey Federation, Safari Club, Trout Unlimited, Trappers and the Izaak Walton League. I asked to have Turtle Trapping put on the agenda for that summer meeting. I invited Professor Jim Pease of Iowa State University to speak to the turtle trapping issue. I had sent him DNR material beforehand. He said he would do it. Jim is a member of the Izaak Walton League, does radio programs on nature for WOI and is very well know and liked. His presentation to the Iowa Conservation Alliance was brilliant.

Jim convinced all the groups around the table that our turtles needed protection. The gentleman representing the Trappers Association did his best to defend the commercial turtle trappers. However, he could not change anyone’s mind around the table. They all lived with and saw the need for the rules that protected their game and their sport.

So, in January we were faced with a lot of opposition in the statehouse. I e-mailed key leaders in my network of organizations. They contacted their members and asked them to write to members of the House of Representatives urging them to support a turtle protection bill. The Iowa Environmental Council, Sierra Club, Iowa Conservation Alliance and especially Iowa Rivers Revival sent out notices. The “Divide and Conquer” strategy of the opponents of environmental activism was beginning to crumble. The bill was assigned to the House Natural Resources committee chaired by republican Brian Moore. Since the Republican Party has the majority of the members in the Iowa House of Representatives they have a lot of power. The majority party leader (Chris Hagenow) assigns bills to committees. Republicans chair each committee and can decide what to do with each bill. In this case I commend Representative Ourth (democrat) for his ability to get the majority leader, Chris Hagenow and the Natural Resources chair, Brian Moore, to take up the bill.

Chairman Moore assigned the bill to a subcommittee, which included Representative Ourth and two republicans. The chair was Dean Fisher. It is at this level that a lobbyist like me can have some influence. The committee met in the House lobby and invited interested parties to say their piece. Representative Ourth had some turtle trappers present to express their concerns. They were polite and reasonable. They wanted their business protected long term with rules but did not want to be driven completely out of business. I spoke to the issue saying it did not make sense to destroy the turtle population of Iowa. It makes no sense that turtle trappers would wish to trap out their source of income. It is only the large commercial interstate trappers who would want to take all of Iowa’s turtles, make loads of money and move on. The subcommittee passed the bill.

The next hurdle was the whole House Natural Resources Committee. The committee heard from the subcommittee Chair, Representative Fisher. One representative asked to be excused from voting since her husband was a commercial turtle trapper. The vote was taken. There was one “no” from Representative Klein from Washington County. I am told that his vote had nothing to do with turtles.

Next step was the Republican caucus where the party decides which bills to move forward. Representative Moore recommended the Turtle Bill. This is a closed session. Outsiders do not know what goes on. However, the rumor is that Representative Klein got angry with Representative Moore and Moore walked out of the meeting and the capitol as a result. He did not return the following day. So, it did not look good for the turtles over the weekend. The bill was dead.

Over the weekend I contacted friends whom I could rely upon to contact their representatives. I also contacted the president of the Raccoon River Watershed Association, Steve Roe, and asked if we could give a “Legislator of the Year” award to Representative Ourth on Saturday. I had convinced Representative Ourth to come to the meeting previously. Steve Roe agreed and said he would make up the document and frame it. So on Saturday he received the award in front of a group of 80 RRWA members at the Hotel Pattee in Perry. We had press and photographers there. He was pleased. And the turtle bill got a mention in a very friendly crowd.

On Monday a group called the legislative roundtable met at the Iowa Environmental Council Office. The chair said he did not want to talk about turtles. That was ok, but did he know the bill was in trouble. At the end of the meeting I asked if the turtle bill was dead. He did not know about the blow up in the Republican Caucus nor did the others around the table. I told them that Representative Ourth said it was dead on Saturday. I was concerned the IEC lobbyist who works for the Trappers Association had failed to tell the director of the IEC about the state of the bill.

That day was a rally day for supporters of IWILL (the Natural Resources and Outdoor Trust Fund). The public voted for a constitutional amendment that would set aside three eighths of a cent of the next sales tax increase for conservation in Iowa. Among the folks in the crowd at the capitol were many friends that I had lobbied before on the turtle bill. One key person was the former president of Pheasants Forever, Jim Wooley; another was the president of the Iowa Conservation Alliance, Randy Taylor, who is a bow hunter. Having those folks on board with the “Tree huggers” (I am considered to be one.) is powerful.

The following day the turtle bill was on the calendar. The day after that it came up for a vote. 96 voted for the bill and one against, Representative Jarad Klein. I was in the gallery looking into the eyes of the members of the House as they voted. I had told as many as I saw that I would be keeping a scorecard as a member of the Iowa Conservation Voters Political Action Committee. Legislators do not like scorecards.

So, then the bill was sent over to the senate there were only two days left before the funnel day deadline. On Wednesday Senator Dearden called a subcommittee meeting the next morning and a full committee meeting that afternoon. By Thursday afternoon the bill had survived the funnel.

The following week the full senate passed the Turtle bill with a vote of 47 to 2. The bill was on its way to the governor for his signature, or not. One would think that this would be a no-brainer. However, for some unexplained reason turtle protection rules have been held up in Governor Branstad’s office for over a year. That is why we had to go the legislature route.

I had been told that his staff was holding up the rules. So, I asked for a meeting with the staff person handling the turtle bill, Julie Vande Hoef. We had a pleasant conversation. However, I could tell that she had been well briefed by the opponents of the bill. I made my case. But, I immediately went home and e-mailed the leaders of other conservation groups to get the word out to contact the governor’s Chief of Staff rather than Julie. Or, if possible contact the governor however possible. At the same time I contacted the Des Moines Register supplying them with information, background and contacts.

On Wednesday of this week (March 23) Governor Branstad signed the turtle bill. The DNR shall create rules protecting Iowa turtles and conduct research to determine the health of the population in the near future. Hopefully, we will begin to notice an increase in the number of turtles across Iowa.

Mike Delaney

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