Wildlife Smuggler Pleads Guilty to Taking Terrapins from Great Bay Wildlife Management Area

Ben Wurst holds a diamondback terrapin during a program teaching children about the threats to the turtle species. File photo by Pat Johnson.

Local conservationist Ben Wurst reacted on Tuesday to news reports that for at least five years, a Pennsylvania man has been traveling to Little Egg Harbor to poach diamondback terrapins and their eggs for export to U.S. and Canadian markets. Wurst has worked for years to protect the threatened species and has enlisted volunteers to help conserve the terrapins by escorting them safely across the remote road bisecting the state’s Great Bay Wildlife Management Area.

“This happened in the heart of where I’ve worked to protect terrapins from becoming road kill in Little Egg Harbor with Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey over the past decade,” said Wurst. “Our project volunteers worked long hours to ensure females could safely cross roads to lay eggs; then this a**hole was poaching nests in the middle of the night on Great Bay Boulevard. I always said that Great Bay Boulevard is like the damn Wild West in the summer.”

On Monday, David Sommers, 60, from Levittown, Pa., pleaded guilty in Philadelphia district court to one count of false labeling contents through the U.S. Postal Office. This was part of a plea agreement that saw his case reduced from six counts including smuggling. He is due to be sentenced on May 16. The maximum sentence is five years in prison and fines up to $250,000 plus restitution.

Sommers was known to authorities through previous wildlife smuggling cases, and he had been warned once before by the postal office for shipping live animals through the mails.

According to press reports, in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obtained warrants to place two GPS tracking devices on his vehicles. It then conducted a sting operation whereby two undercover agents from Fish and Wildlife contacted his website to purchase terrapins, one in New York and one from Wisconsin.

Conservation officers from the N.J. Division of Wildlife stopped Sommers on Great Bay Boulevard in Little Egg Harbor on July 11, 2017, at 9:30 p.m. and found he had taken terrapin eggs from nests alongside the road. They told him it was illegal to do so and gave him a warning. However, he returned the next night between midnight and 2 a.m. An agent in Pennsylvania watched him take 188 eggs from his car. On Oct. 24 of that year, after getting a search warrant, federal agents searched his home and found 3,442 diamondback terrapin hatchlings and 23 box turtles. They also found a drug that induces female terrapins to release their eggs. They also discovered shipping labels and packing material.

Federal prosecutors speaking on Monday said this was the largest case of terrapin poaching for sale through the wildlife black market they had ever seen.

Wurst, the wildlife manager for the CWFNJ, commented, “Great job by New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officers and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement to build a solid case on this. I’m glad this guy won’t be able to profit from wildlife trafficking anymore, but it’ll only be a matter of time until someone else takes their place.”

— Pat Johnson and staff reports

Reposted from The Sandpaper