Snapping Back at Invasive Turtles

Snapping Back at Invasive Turtles

Snapping Back: Montana Conservation Corps Fellows Work to Rid Invasive Snapping Turtles from Local Ecosystems

By 2022 FLBS Ted Smith Environmental Storytelling Intern Joshua Moyar

Haaken Bungum, 26, inspects the large trap he just pulled from Kohler Lake, near Bigfork, Montana, some 30 miles south of Glacier National Park. 

“I can see how they get in,” he says, “but how do they get out?”

Donned in shoulder-high waders and a flat-brimmed baseball cap, he grabs what is left of the bait fish, chewed to the tailfin, from the back of the trap.

“My hand gets stuck in there every time I reach in,” Bungum says to his 22-year-old partner, Abigail Hendra. “These turtles are onto us.”

Bungum and Hendra are an elite pair of fellows through Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), an organization dedicated to inspiring young adults to become conservation leaders through hands-on experience. Based at the Flathead Lake Bio Station (FLBS), their sole purpose this summer is to find and destroy as many invasive snapping turtles as they can in the northeast portion of the Flathead Watershed. Armed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) with a hatchet and several vials of the anesthetic ketamine, the two have everything they need to make the kill. They just need to catch them first.

The premise of the trap is simple: a cylindrical net is staked at wading depth in the pond of choice. A funnel-shaped entryway makes it easy to get in, but much more difficult to escape. Lured by the smell of rotting fish, the snapping turtle will enter the trap, get stuck, and have to wait around for Bungum and Hendra to arrive on the scene. That’s the idea, anyways. But somehow, the turtles are getting the food without getting caught—“dining-and-dashing,” as Bungum says.

“We’re coming for you!” Bungum yells at the pond as they leave for the day.



2022 Montana Conservation Corps Fellows Abigail Hendra and Haaken Bungum display the shell of a snapping turtle to demonstrate the potential size these invasive turtles can reach.


Despite some problems with the trapping process, the snapping turtle removal team has been quite successful in its sophomore year. Last year, a different pair of MCC fellows assigned the same task didn’t net a single turtle. This year, Bungum and Hendra have already dispatched 21, most of them coming from small, private lakes in the east side of the Flathead Valley, like Kohler and McGilvray.

No one is quite sure how long snapping turtles have been in northwest Montana, or how exactly they got here. Native to the eastern half of the United States, including the Great Plains region of Montana, snapping turtles have succeeded in crossing the Continental Divide, likely thanks to irresponsible pet owners who learned the hard way that the reptiles can grow to almost 50 pounds. Confirmed sightings of the turtles can be traced to the 1980s, and likely go even further back. Regardless, they’re here in northwest Montana and their population size is substantial. Part of Bungum and Hendra’s work will hopefully answer some of these questions.

Luckily, the presence of snappers hasn’t caused any sort of major ecosystem changes, like Flathead Lake’s famous trophic cascade due to Mysis shrimp or the Great Lakes’ zebra mussel epidemic. The turtles are slow to breed and slower to travel. 

Still, in the Montana ponds, lakes, and streams where they’re present, snapping turtles wreak havoc on native turtle, fish, and water bird species, devouring them when they’re young and preventing stable populations from growing into adulthood. Since Montana doesn’t have natural predators of the snapping turtles, wherever the snappers are introduced, they become the top predator.

“We didn’t, and still don’t, understand the full extent of snapping turtles in the Flathead Valley,” Jessy Coltrane, the non-game biologist for Montana FWP Region 1 in Kalispell and the MCC fellows’ supervisor, said. “We felt through this program, we could get a better understanding of what the distribution may be, what the potential area that's impacted by snapping turtles is, and a rough idea of densities or how prolific they are in those areas … We don't think the program will be able to eradicate snapping turtles in the Flathead, that was never a goal, but we can at least remove as many as we can.” 

Locating the snappers can be tricky. Unlike western Montana’s native turtle species, the six-inch, one-pound painted slider, snapping turtles don’t bask in the sun. They can hold their breath for nearly an hour, and can spend nearly half the year hibernating beneath frozen lakes. 

“It’s hard to find a sign of a snapping turtle,” Bungum said. Often the only signs the turtles leave behind are tracks or drag marks along the shoreline. “Like, ‘Oh, there’s some squished mud over there!’ It could just be squished mud,” Bungum continued.

Most of the pair’s success is due to reports called into FWP by homeowners. Mike and Carrie Hirst, for instance, have owned a portion of McGilvray Lake’s shoreline for five years, and have seen multiple snapping turtles every summer they’ve lived here. In the past year, they discovered the novel turtle-removal service of FWP and were quick to take advantage. 

“We always like looking at the little ducklings in the spring,” Mike said, “but over time we’d notice them slowly disappear. We were eager to get those turtles out. I didn’t want to go down there and shoot them with a gun, but I thought about it.”

“We’ve caught snapping turtles over in eastern Montana with a bucket,” Carrie said, “but we didn't really know how to kill them. So that's it. We called [FWP].” 

So far, Bungum and Hendra have pulled nine snappers from McGilvray, and they are almost positive there are more.

Killing a snapping turtle isn’t a walk in the park. In fact, it can be quite gruesome. The sturdy upper shell, or carapace, can grow to be more than a foot long. If the size isn’t enough to dissuade you, the namesake jaws might help. While most of the turtle is bulky and sluggish, it can extend its neck and turn its head quicker than Bungum and Hendra are comfortable with. Not to mention the strong, spiked tail. Altogether, the beast is something Hendra describes as “prehistoric,” and Bungum appropriately calls a “friggin’ dinosaur.”

Once the turtle is in the net and has been dragged to the shore, the pair administer a dose of ketamine to the turtle’s backside. Next, a bucket is placed over the turtle for about twenty minutes, completely calming the reptile. The creature is on cloud nine when the final blow is delivered to the snapper’s neck, (or, more often than not, blows, as the turtle’s strong neck muscles make cutting through in one stroke of the ax quite challenging).

“Full stomach, eyes in the sky—that’s the thought,” Bungum said. “Let them go out on a high.”

As exciting as the job may be, neither of the interns expected to be stationed with FWP’s snapping turtle removal team when they applied for Montana Conservation Corps’ summer internship program.

“I thought I’d be building trailheads, but this is cool too,” Hendra said. “I think it’s fun and exciting to set out traps and go on the hunt, but it’s kind of sad to kill an animal that didn’t ask to be here in the first place.”

Hendra recalls a specific moment of sadness when doing away with an especially small turtle. Bungum, on the other hand, feels particularly bad for killing the larger turtles, some with shells caked with algae that could’ve been growing for decades.

However, as unfortunate as the circumstances are, both Hendra and Bungum believe the work they’re doing to restore natural balance in the freshwater ponds of northwest Montana is important, and that they are going about it in the best available way. 

“In an ideal world, we’d be able to put them in a snapping turtle sanctuary, but that doesn't exist,” Bungum said. “So we just try to be humane.”


Bungum and Hendra inspect a snapping turtle trap.


The biggest issue Bungum and Hendra have is what happens after the fall of the ax. Most are currently stored in a freezer at the FWP office in Kalispell. Bungum and Hendra have carved several turtles out of their shells in hopes of using the shells as educational tools for the agency, but the process takes roughly two hours per turtle.

An idea that Bungum immediately had was eating the turtles—to use, and not waste the meat. Common in Southeast Asian cuisine, turtle can often be found in soups and stews. Other ways to prepare turtle include frying it and, as Bungum’s Singaporian mother suggests, including it in stir fry with pineapple. Born in Singapore himself, Bungum is no stranger to eating turtle, though on that side of the globe they typically use sea turtles. 

Unfortunately, turtles that have been injected with ketamine are rendered inedible. Still, Bungum has experimented with cooking turtles they’ve captured. When killing smaller turtles, the duo has been able to knock the reptile unconscious before dispatching it, rather than using the drug and spoiling the meat. Bungum prepared snapping turtle stew in the FLBS dining hall using a thrifted slow cooker and a recipe he found online.

Surprisingly, snapping turtle meat bears a striking resemblance to cow in both appearance and taste. After slow cooking for ten hours, the meat became easily comparable to braised beef. Bungum thinks eating snapping turtle can pose a theoretical solution to the abundance problem. 

“A lot of people don’t want to eat them, which is a shame because it’s quite a lot of meat,” Bungum said. “People have got to get more used to eating turtles. If I didn't tell you that you were eating turtle, you would have thought it was beef goulash.”

Indeed, eating invasive species has become something of a trend in recent years. Animals that have wound up where they aren’t supposed to be, like Asian carp, European rabbits, and, closer to home, Flathead’s lake trout, are often finding themselves on the menu, providing an eco-friendly, ethical solution to both the carbon-producing meat industry and food shortages around the world. 

While consuming the turtles could work on the short-term, it doesn’t solve one of the biggest challenges to snapping turtle removal: the community’s ignorance of the problem. 

“People don’t realize they’re invasive,” Mike Hirst said. “Our neighbor over there found one, and he’s from Arkansas so he was familiar with snappers. He just picked it up and brought it back down to the pond. Another neighbor from California didn’t know either. They know now, but only because we’ve been telling them.”

Hendra believes that additional community engagement could provide solutions to the Flathead Watershed’s snapping turtle problem. A Florida resident, Hendra is no stranger to invasive species. Some of the greatest success stories she’s seen in Florida  involved friendly competitions (with prize money) to see who could catch the most invasive pythons and cook-offs using the harmful lionfish, a tasty invader off the Atlantic coast.

In general, Montana’s response to aquatic invasive species has been strong.

“In Montana, if it's invasive, it's taboo, so to speak,” said Mike Hirst. “In North Dakota, you never really heard that … but here, whether it's walleye or turtles or, of course, the mussels, they seem to come at it more aggressively. It was a surprise [when we moved here].”

According to Bungum and Hendra, the best thing to do when you find a snapper is capture it and give FWP a call.

“Put a bucket over it or something before you call,” Bungum said, “because when they're on land that's the easiest time to get it. Once they're in the water, the trap takes a lot of energy and time.”

The team has received many reports of a snapping turtle, only to arrive to find it has vanished with no leads as to where it went. Keeping the turtle in one place greatly helps the FWP team.

By the end of August, the team had 37 confirmed snapping turtle catches, with no signs of slowing. Bungum now returns to Kohler Lake with a new strategy: before putting the fish in the trap, he’ll wrap it in chicken wire to force the snappers to fully enter the trap before being able to sneak a bite, as well as to prevent the smaller painted slider turtles from stealing the bait meant to protect them. He’s confident the ploy will work.

“You’re not getting dinner today, buddy,” he says to a nearby slider as it scurries into the muddy depths of the lake.