NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Two environmental groups have sued the Trump administration, saying it has failed to protect map turtles found in Mississippi and Louisiana under the Endangered Species Act.
The lawsuit calls for endangered or threatened status for the Pearl River map turtle, which is found in the Pearl River watershed in Louisiana and Mississippi, and the Pascagoula map turtle, found only in part of Mississippi's Pascagoula River system.
"These turtles are in steep decline and face major threats, yet the Trump administration is dragging its feet on protecting them," attorney Jason Totoiu said in a news release Tuesday. "The two species are unique to just these two rivers, but they're being driven to oblivion by trapping, pollution and reckless development, including yet another unnecessary dam proposed on the Pearl River."
The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the suit filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., against the U .S. Fish and Wildlife Service; its director, Aurelia Skipwith; and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.
Totoiu works for the Center for Biological Diversity, which joined New Orleans-based Healthy Gulf in the lawsuit saying plans for a dam in Hinds and Rankin counties could wipe out the Pearl River map turtle by turning the rivers where it lives into a lake.
Threats to both species include boat navigation improvements that remove the logs and snags where the turtles bask, as well as sales of the turtles themselves, Totoiu said in an interview. He said the turtles are sold not just for the pet trade, but also for Asian food and medicinal markets. "It's common to a lot of species in the Southeast U.S., but these in particular," he said.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers both Pascagoula and Pearl River map turtles to be endangered, with their numbers falling.
Map turtles got the name for shell markings that resemble maps. They also are called sawbacks because their shells have a central ridge that sometimes develops saw-like points.
Pascagoula and Pearl River map turtles are among 13 species of map turtles. They look similar enough that until June 2010 - two months after environmental groups asked protection for the Pascagoula map turtle - they were considered one species.
The groups notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2018 and again in October 2019 that they would sue if the agency failed to decide within 60 days whether the turtles are endangered.
The request for a decision on whether to list the turtles as endangered or threatened was made the year after Barack Obama became president. His administration did work at reducing the backlog, said Noah Greenwald, the Center's endangered species director. He said a schedule agreed on toward the end of the Obama administration has been ignored since Donald Trump took office.
"The Trump administration has just shut the listing program down," Greenwald said. "They've only listed 21 species in the last three years. ... They're not following their work plan."
Without protection, Totoiu said, both species "could go extinct in my lifetime, and that of many people who enjoy seeing them out in the wild."