TISHOMINGO, Okla. (AP) _ A species of turtle that had nearly disappeared from the state is back swimming in the waters of southeastern Oklahoma. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released 277 alligator snapping turtles, classified as a ``species of special concern'' in Oklahoma, into the Washita River drainage system, primarily in waters around the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge.
``I never thought I would see the day when there were alligator snapping turtles on the refuge again,'' said Kris Patton, manager of the Tishomingo Wildlife Refuge.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission confiscated the adult alligator snapping turtles from a commercial breeder and relocated them to southern Oklahoma, where they once flourished.
The only viable population of alligator snapping turtles in Oklahoma had been at the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge.
``Many people find it hard to believe that alligator snapping turtles are rare because they confuse them with the common snapping turtles which are seen frequently in this area,'' said Brian Fillmore, fishery biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Alligator snapping turtles can grow quite large _ one found in Missouri weighed 316 pounds. The turtles will generally stay in murky backwater sloughs and feed on rough fish, plants and dead animal carcasses, Day Ligon, an Oklahoma State University researcher, said.
``It will be a rare occurrence for anyone to come into contact with one of these turtles, or even know that they are there,'' Ligon said.
Several of the released turtles have sonic transmitters attached to their shells for tracking. OSU graduate students will monitor the turtles over the next several years.
Habitat alteration, such as the building of reservoirs, pollution and over-harvesting, has led to a decline of about 80% of alligator snapping turtles in southern Oklahoma.
Much of the over-harvesting was the result of turtles getting caught on trotlines.
``Frequently fishermen will forget to take down their trotlines, leaving them in place for years,'' said Mary Davis, technician at the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery. ``These are especially dangerous since there is no activity around the lines, the turtles are lulled into a false sense of security.''
Also, there is an illegal market for these turtles in the food and pet industry, Davis said.
In Oklahoma, it is illegal to possess an alligator snapping turtle without a scientific collector's permit due since it's a threatened species.