The Great Turtle Chase

One man's epic battle against the wildlife police and the state's grip on native turtles.

Armies of painted turtles are coming out of hibernation with the end of winter, bobbing to the surface of the countless lakes and ponds that dot the Inland Northwest.

For Bill Bernstein, 40, this might have been the time to pursue a pastime he’s enjoyed since his childhood: collecting snakes and turtles from their aquatic sanctuaries. Or, it could have been the time to reignite his side business of selling those turtles.

But for now, it’s neither. He’s just awaiting trial.

“If it’s a crime, it’s funny, but it’s not funny,” he says of a state law that prevents him from possessing Washington’s native painted turtle. (The law protects the turtles because they’re native to the region, like marmots, not because they’re endangered.) Last Friday, he was arraigned on a $271 citation he received last month after the state’s wildlife veterinarian saw him with two painted turtles at a Boy Scout show-and-tell day.

Bernstein says he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. And he refuses to pay the fine.

“This is going to cost the state $8,000,” he says of the forthcoming battle. He says he refused a plea deal and is prepared for a juried trial. “You know, I’m not going to stop. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Fish and Wildlife Officer Lenny Hahn issues a lot of warnings during his rounds in Eastern Washington’s wild lands.

“A fair amount of people collect turtles,” he says. “I tell them usually to put them back.”

But with Bernstein, Hahn had a different story on his hands. Last August, Hahn was alerted by the Cheney Police Department of a near-scuffle at Fish Lake that involved two men comparing pistols, Hahn says. One man was drunk. The other was selling turtles — the reason Hahn was notified.

“On August 30th, 2010 at 1200 hours I seized a painted turtle from Bernstein at his residence,” Hahn writes in an incident report. “Bernstein said he didn’t realize they were protected.” Bernstein had been selling them.

Alison Beernink, who works at Northwest Seed and Pet in east Spokane, says people come in all the time trying to sell painted turtles.

“I say, ‘That is a Western painted turtle and it is illegal to possess them, you should go back and release them,’” she says. “Most of them have had them for a pet and realize they’re not very good as pets. And they’re hoping to get some money out of them.”

Hahn left Bernstein’s house that August without issuing a fine. Instead, he gave Bernstein a verbal warning, as well as a copy of the law.

Early last month, Bernstein was at his 7-year-old nephew’s Boy Scout meeting with two turtles. It turns out, so was Kristin Mansfield, the state’s wildlife veterinarian and the mother of a Boy Scout. At the meeting, Bernstein’s nephew told her son there were nine turtles at Bernstein’s house.

At the office, she found Hahn. “She came to me and said, ‘There was this guy showing off painted turtles,’” Hahn says. “I said, ‘What’s his name?’ She tells me. Bill Bernstein. And I say, ‘Really?’” Hahn went to find Bernstein and ended up at an old address, where he ran into people who knew Bernstein. And by the time he arrived at Bernstein’s Cheney residence, Bernstein was turtle-less. (Hahn suggests Bernstein had been tipped off by the residents at the old address.)

“It was apparent that he had just got rid of them and that was why he was outside when we arrived and was so willing to let us in his house,” Hahn writes.

This time, Hahn was there to issue a fine. But, according to the report, Bernstein played dumb.

“He didn’t think they were painted turtles,” Hahn writes. “I told him that was about the only turtle we had around here.”

Hahn was skeptical.

The way Bernstein tells it, he was not comparing guns at Fish Lake but was wary of the drunk man with a pistol who wanted to get some turtles for his handgun.

And there were not two painted turtles at the Boy Scout meeting, he says, just one red-eared slider.

“Myrtle the turtle,” he calls the (alleged) slider. And now the state’s trying to squeeze him for almost $300 because the state veterinarian misidentified his reptile.

“It’s all hearsay,” he says. “Yeah, we had a turtle. My neighbor bought it from PetCo. Or PetSmart.”

Shortly after the Boy Scout meeting, Bernstein gets a knock on his door.

“It’s Lenny again,” Bernstein says. “I’m here for the turtle,” he says Hahn told him. “We don’t have the turtle. You can look around my house.

Feel free.”

“I’m going to cite you. I warned you once before.” “Are you going to arrest me?” “No, I’m not going to arrest you. I’m just going to fine you.

You don’t even have to show up to court. It’s not the crime of the century.”

“The crime of the century?” Bernstein says, unhappy that Hahn even uttered the words. “For what? I’ve been catching snakes since I was a kid. There’s over 50, 60 different varieties of turtles in the United States alone. … I don’t want to harm anything. I don’t want to hurt wildlife. I like to educate people.”

Bernstein will fight the issue in court in a few weeks, and if it goes the way he wants it to, the ability of Kristin Mansfield (the state wildlife veterinarian) to identify different turtles will be questioned.

Charlie Powell, spokesman for WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, wouldn’t speak directly about the case. He did say Mansfield was very sharp.*

“Wildlife vets have an uncanny ability to identify different species at a distance that is startlingly accurate,” he says.

Hahn agrees. Vets “all have their specialty. Hers is wild animals,” he says. “I’m not saying her specialty is turtles but she knows the difference between [painted turtles and sliders].”

Regardless, the trial is going forward. At the arraignment, the judge found enough probable cause to retain the charges against Bernstein. In a handwritten note, he scrawled one last condition for Bernstein before trial. Do not “possess any painted turtle.” 

* A previous version of this story falsely indicated that Mansfield attended Washington State University.

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About The Author

Nicholas Deshais

Nicholas Deshais is the Editor of the Inlander, where he oversees the entire editorial operation and supervises news coverage. He was a staff writer for the paper from 2008-12, and has worked for various news outlets, including Portland’s newsweekly Willamette Week, the Spokesman-Review, Northwest Public Broadcasting...