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Dead turtles outside Hayti, Mo.

Dead turtles found outside Hayti, Mo., on Thursday, April 19, 2018, by firefighters battling a wildfire. The Missouri Department of Conservation says 163 turtles were illegally poached and dumped at the site. They asked for the public's help in tracking down the alleged poachers. Photo by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Firefighters battling a wildfire last week in the Missouri Bootheel found a grim scene: a pile of 163 dead turtles conservation officials say poachers dumped there.

The Missouri Department of Conservation is asking for help tracking down the poachers and offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to an arrest.

“This dump site is, without a doubt, the most egregious turtle poaching incident that I have seen in my career,” conservation Agent Brian Shelton said in a statement. “I’m appalled that anyone would have this kind of disregard for our wildlife here in the Bootheel.”

The grave pile was found Thursday by firefighters outside the rural town of Hayti, Mo., in tall grass near a complex of tennis courts and a walking trail, Shelton told the Springfield News-Leader. The wildfire had burned off the tall grass, exposing the 161 red-eared slider turtles and two snapping turtles.

Shelton said there was no apparent reason for someone to kill the turtles, and that left him with “more questions than answers.”

“There were no bullet holes in them, but it’s just my speculation that somebody illegally trapped them and dumped them here,” he told the News-Leader.

Conservation officials issued a news release Monday asking for the public’s help in solving the case and offering the reward. Officials say anonymous tips can be made to the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-392-1111 or directly to Shelton at 573-757-8357.

Turtles’ safety is already at risk in springtime, when they tend to emerge from their burrows and cross roadways in search of food and mates. Officials included a reminder Monday to drivers across the state to be on the lookout.

Both red-eared sliders and snapping turtles help keep the populations of many aquatic animals and plants in check, according to conservation officials.

Red-eared sliders are common semi-aquatic turtles throughout the state. The turtles, which are active from March through mid-October, are named so because of how quickly they slide into bodies of water after basking in the sun. They can be spotted by the distinct red or orange stripe on each side of the back of their head.

Snapping turtles are large aquatic turtles with large, pointed heads; long, thick tails; and small lower shells.

Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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