Nisswa saves its turtle races as pressure grows from new state law, conservation groups (2024)

Nisswa is known for its summer turtle races that draws hundreds of tourists to town. Every Wednesday kids compete to crowds of cheering adults who recall participating in the same tradition decades ago.

But a new state law protecting the shelled species ended Nisswa's traditional means of acquiring turtles for the races. The Nisswa Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the races, needed 100. In mid-May it had two.

Other communities in North Central Minnesota also faced challenges with new regulations — passed last year and effective in January — that prohibit commercial harvesting and trapping of painted and snapping turtles.

Turtle races involve placing turtles with a number on their shell in a circle. Slow and steady, kids root for their turtle to cross the outer ring of the circle to win, egging them on with water or banging their bucket. But with the hot concrete, stress, risk of disease and occasionally kids accidently dropping turtles, conservation groups say the races remain controversial.

"Taking turtles out of the wild to use for — we'll call it public sport — while it may provide communities with an activity and something that is cherished, it's overall not in the best interest for the turtles," said Jordan Gray with the South Carolina-based Turtle Survival Alliance.

Catch and release

Kalie Jay, new president of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce, put a "save our turtles" call-out on Facebook about "our beloved Nisswa Turtle Races."

"We had exhausted every avenue we could possibly figure out how to get turtles and we had none," Jay said in a phone interview. "So we put the call out to our Chamber members and said, 'listen, if we can't get some turtles, we're not gonna have turtle races.'"

Typically a local bait shop traps indigenous painted turtles each spring when they come out of hibernation. The nonprofit Mounted Eagles cares for the turtles, feeding them minnows in a pond not far from the racetrack. Mounted Eagle then releases them to the wild after the last races in August.

Jay said a resort owner enlisted her son who said "'Not on my watch.' So he took his daughters and his nieces out and, over the course of a few days, was able to catch almost all the turtles we needed."

The new law didn't impact Longville, where turtle racing also runs deep and relies on turtle donations.

"We've got pretty good support in this community for the turtle races. So a lot of the locals will bring them in," said Trish Emerson, president of the Longville Chamber of Commerce, adding that Frosty's Ice Cream & Pizza Parlor gives kids a free cone if they bring in a turtle.

Longville has been hosting turtle races since the mid-1960s, about as long as Nisswa.

"We both compete over who's the turtle racing capital," Emerson said with a laugh.

But let's not forget about Perham, celebrating its 47th annual turtle races this summer, and Battle Lake, where the community in Otter Tail County hosts races every Thursday.

The Perham Area Chamber of Commerce said in light of new regulations, turtles are collected from ponds, rivers and other bodies of water. Turtle shells are also marked based on location so that volunteer can return them to that spot at the end of summer.

Casey Love, with the Battle Lake nonprofit Lakes Area Community Center, said the roughly 15 turtles for the races were provided by a local bait company that inadvertently got turtles in minnow nets.

"The last two years there was no turtles in the traps, so it was a struggle to get turtles to the races in general," he said. But a man in Alexandria "who sells turtles to colleges for scientific purposes... he just donated them to us, and then I just release them at the end of the season."

Gray, with the Turtle Survival Alliance, said bycatches are prohibited. "It doesn't matter if you're specifically targeting the turtle or not."

The Minnesota DNR said it doesn't monitor turtle races, but the events must follow regulations, which prohibits inadvertent trapping. Greg Husak, a DNR spokesman, said the law also bans releasing turtles back into the wild.

"The DNR received some questions about what turtle race organizers/participants are then supposed to be doing with the turtles after a race is over," Husak wrote in an email. "It is up to the race organizers to determine what they do with the turtles after races, now that it is no longer legal to release them, and the person collecting the turtles is responsible for their care."

While the DNR occasionally fields questions on races, Husak said concerns should be directed to the races.

Christopher Smith, chair of the Minnesota Herpetological Society, said in an email that races are supposed to be bring your own turtle (BYOT), with kids retaining ownership. If that can't happen to limit the spread of disease, he said communities should establish long-term captive colony care.

"It's concerning that many of the turtle race organizers appear to be misinformed on the law change," Smith said.

Turtle conservation

Minnesota's turtle protection laws accommodate races by allowing kids 16 and younger to collect 25 turtles.

"That type of provision is typically not given in other states," Gray said.

Kids don't need a recreational turtle license. It's $25 annually for adults to harvest and possess three painted turtles and three snapping turtles — only with the use of a net on the end of a pole or a hook and line.

"I would love to see Minnesota take the lead on working with our best practices," said Alex Heeb, co-founder of the Turtle Conservation Group. "It's a major part of their tourist industry having turtle races, so that makes Minnesota kind of unique."

He reached out to Perham, Nisswa and Longville. They all either declined to participate or didn't respond.

Guidelines include proper transportation and handling, avoiding hot asphalt and hosting on grass instead.

Heeb said road mortalities and raccoons are greater threats to turtles than races. Not many turtle eggs make it to adulthood though, so populations rely on adults surviving year after year. If communities take actions in favor of turtle conservation, Heeb said that's protecting supplies for future races.

"We don't want to kill the fun, we don't want to kill the tradition. We just want to see these turtles thrive and survive, which is going to take some sensitivity from the race organizers to make sure that their conservation is looked after."

Jay in Nisswa said she understand why conservationists see races as controversial, but the community treats turtles like "shellebrities" that spend a small fraction of their week at the races.

"Otherwise, they're just able to, you know, be turtles," she said. "They're fed the same diet they would eat if they were in the wild and kept safe. We're keeping them from getting run over by a car or that kind of thing.

Come see a turtle race and you can see that we care about these turtles. They're not just a vessel for entertainment for us. They're a big deal."

Nisswa saves its turtle races as pressure grows from new state law, conservation groups (2024)
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