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Padre Island National Seashore turtle program facing cuts

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Posted at 12:38 PM, Jul 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 19:13:42-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The ATV motored its way along the beach, with the eyes of one volunteer and one paid employee scouting for turtles or turtle tracks or turtle nests.

Erica Sertl says it has been a slow summer for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles at the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS).

“I’ve only seen one nest so far,” said Sertl, who is in her first year with the National Parks Service (NPS). “We’ve had a few calls from visitors who’ve found nests and we’ve taken care of them.”

It could be her one and only summer on “turtle patrol” if proposed cuts to biologist Donna Shaver’s Sea Turtle Science and Recovery program are implemented this fall. An NPS review conducted in 2020 revealed that the program uses approximately 25 percent of the budget for PINS.

Among other things, the new budget proposal essentially would put an end to the gathering of Kemp’s ridley nests and eggs along some 70 miles of parks service beaches. Instead, it proposes closing those beaches to motor-vehicle traffic to allow the turtles to nest without human threat.

“Humans aren’t the threat,” said longtime parks volunteer Jan Roberson, who has been working with Shaver for decades. “Coyotes, fire ants, ghost crabs -- even feral pigs -- are the threats to those nests. If they’re not gathered and protected, the Kemp’s ridley turtles won’t survive. It’s politics. And it’s all about the money, in my opinion.”

Shaver’s program, which benefits five species of sea turtles, has been dependent on base funds allocated by the United States Congress; grants she has personally secured, including Deepwater Horizon restoration funds that will expire in the next few years. The review suggests that it would be unwise to continue in that vein.

It also states the program should focus on the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, while spending less time aiding other species. Still, as a means of cutting the budget, the review calls the popular turtle-release events staged free to the public several times each summer “non-essential,” and suggests that the NPS could save money by releasing the hatchlings without such fanfare.

“Thousands of people come to watch and cheer the hatchlings as they make their way to the water," Roberson said. "They come from everywhere. Different states, different countries. It’s educational and it’s fun. This runs a lot deeper than we know.”

Shaver has refused comment, saying she’s “gagged” by Park Superintendent Eric Brunnemann. She has filed a federal complaint.

“It’s Eric Brunnemann," Roberson said. "They sent him here to kill Donna’s program. It’s politics."

KRIS 6 News requested an interview with Brunnemann for this report. His office said he would not speak with us unless we provided a list of questions in advance, which KRIS 6 News does not do.

Closing the NPS beaches during nesting season (April through July) would also severely cripple the local economy, said Cos Way Bait & Tackle owner Tyler Millerstrom. “I’m all about things that make sense. Closing the beaches is not the solution that makes the most sense.

“People come from all over to surf fish at PINS (Padre Island National Seashore). It’s a destination. And if they can’t fish PINS, they won’t come. That would hurt our business, and other businesses in the area,” Millerstrom said.

Millerstrom has posters urging the public to sign a petition to stop the budget cuts, which are proposed for implementation in October.

“It’s not just about the turtles,” he said.

Roberson agrees, but for a different reason.

“This is about money and politics,” she said.