The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission voted today to formally deny the petition of a complete closure on turtle harvest and heard the first reading of six new regulations changes aimed at managing the commercial harvest of turtles in the state.

The six proposed changes are:

*To cap the sale of annual commercial turtle harvest-related permit holders to 150 per year for 2019-2021;

*Require submission of at least one report per harvester per year in order to renew a commercial harvester or dealer permit;

*Close the Gulf Coastal Plain to commercial aquatic turtle harvest;

*Close the St. Francis River in Greene and Clay counties to commercial aquatic turtle harvest;

*Prohibit the harvest of razorback musk turtles, and

*Clarify that anyone holding wild caught aquatic turtles for commercial transfer purposes must have an Aquatic Turtle Dealer Permit.

The petition to completely eliminate commercial harvest of wild turtles in Arkansas was submitted to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission from the Center for Biological Diversity. It was added to the AGFC’s online public comment survey during the regular fisheries regulation-setting process. Results of that survey were discussed in detail during Commission committee meetings held in August.

After thorough review of the survey and current data, AGFC staff recommended that the petition for an outright ban be denied and more study be done on the situation through 2021 in order to make a more data-driven decision.

Ben Batten, chief of fisheries for the AGFC said a similar petition had been received and denied in 2009.

“Between 2009 and 2017, the number of permitted commercial harvesters and dealers dropped by 59 percent to 35 individuals,” Batten said. “And the reported harvest dropped by 74 percent. The vast majority of reported harvest comes from private property in the highly altered landscape of the Mississippi River Delta and occurs on the most common species.”

Batten said there is no immediate danger of any species harvested of becoming threatened or endangered. Should drastic shifts occur, the agency could react with regulations in a timely manner.

A public comment survey of the six proposed regulations is available at https://www.agfc.com/en/resources/scientific-reports/surveys/. Commissioners are expected to vote on these changes at the November 15 commission meeting.

The Commission also tabled proposed changes to captive wildlife regulations until its regularly scheduled January 17 meeting to allow more time for adaptation and consideration of public comments gathered through online surveys. The 120-day suspension on the issuance of any new breeder/dealer permits for non-native venomous reptiles was extended until the conclusion of that meeting.

In other business, the Commission:

*Approved a grant of $100,000 to be paid to Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry over the next four years to assist in costs associated with their “Woods to School” backpack program, where Arkansas hunter-harvested venison will be used to provide jerky-style snack sticks to Arkansas schools.


*Recognized Robbie Strother as recipient of the Fisheries Technical/Administrative Employee of the Year.


*Recognized former employee Larry Hodges as recipient of the Fisheries Division Legacy Award for his lifetime of service to the AGFC.


*Recognized Matt Schroeder as recipient of the 2018 Mike Freeze Excellence in Fisheries Award.


*Recognized Cory Gray, Shandra Tipton and Brian Wagner as recipients of the 2018 Campbell Awards.


*Recognized 22 employees representing 370 years of service for their commitment to the natural resources of Arkansas and the people who enjoy them.


*Authorized a budget transfer of $35,000 for the installation of pipe and a screw-gate structure to create a new 746-acre greentree reservoir on Dave Donaldson Black River WMA.


*Authorized AGFC Director Pat Fitts to accept conveyance of a perpetual water pipeline and road easement from Sullards Farms and relinquish the current easement on the irrigation canal feeding Brett Morgan Halowell Reservoir on George Dunklin Jr. Bayou Meto WMA and make a budget transfer of $280,000 to construct a new pipeline and pump station to more efficiently deliver water to the reservoir.


*Authorized the use of marine fuel tax funds to complete the following projects:


*Replace low-water crossing at Rockhouse Access on Kings River - $90,000 in marine fuel tax funds.


*Overlay 2.3 miles of asphalt on Hurricane Lake Road near the White River - $200,000 in marine fuel tax funds.


*Add base rock and asphalt overlay to 800 feet of Gillham Lake Road - $33,400 in marine fuel tax funds.


*Asphalt 1.7 miles of Cottonshed Road leading to Millwood Lake - $200,000 in marine fuel tax funds.


*Approved the removal of outdated and obsolete inventory with an original cost of $692,931 and a current net book value of $27,264.


*Granted a surplus ATV to The Nature Conservancy to assist in several small upland habitat projects around the state. The ATV originally was granted from TNC to the AGFC as part of a larger private lands quail habitat project.


*Awarded retiring wildlife officer Cpl. James “Chuck” Willis his service sidearm.


*Extended the valid timespan of AGFC boathouse and pier permits on Commission-owned properties from one year to three years with a price adjustment reflecting the change.


*Authorized Director Fitts to enter into a memorandum of understanding between the AGFC and the American Gamebird Research, Education and Development Foundation for future fisheries management and enforcement of state fishing regulations on Lake Erling in Lafayette County.

A video of the meeting is available at https://www.youtube.com/user/ArkansasGameandFish.