Florida 'gator hunt shows species' rapid comeback. A means to preserve animals and wetlands

Twenty years ago alligators frequented only the most isolated swamplands of Florida. But today, a 'gator is just as likely to be found sauntering through some unsuspecting Floridian's backyard. The growing number of such encounters is a result of both the ``increasing alligators and the increasing number of people moving into alligator habitats,'' according to Dennis David, alligator-program coordinator for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (GFC).

For an animal that was put on the endangered species list in 1967 and was officially removed only a year ago, this is a dramatic turnaround.

Although estimates of Florida's alligator population are problematical, experts put the number at about 1 million. This is roughly double the estimated population of the 1960s.

In an effort to check both the animal's rapid population growth and the transformation of Florida's remaining swamplands into more backyards, the GFC has scheduled an alligator hunt, the first since 1962. Hunting season will run for the month of September and will be restricted to 28 wetland areas around the state. About 2,700 alligators will be killed.

The GFC sees the coming hunt as the best way simultaneously to protect its alligators and the state's wetlands, as it will provide an economic incentive for keeping the alligator population alive and the wetlands wet.

On the one hand, profits from hunting licenses and tag fees will be used specifically for alligator-management programs, including investigations into population size and habitat availability.

At the same time, the hunt is designed to discourage the filling of valuable wetlands. Mr. David visualizes the implementation of ``value-added conservation,'' whereby hunters who profit from the alligator skins will ``develop as a constituency to rally behind protection of the habitat where these creatures reside.''

The American alligator recovered from endangerment primarily because of the GFC's strict enforcement of poaching laws. ``In the international picture the alligator program in this country is really considered the model wildlife management and trade program,'' says Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund.

In the late 1960s, alligator management ``wasn't a priority'' for the GFC, David says. Extensive poaching caused the animal's numbers to dwindle below 500,000.

In 1970 Congress passed the Lacy Act, which prohibited interstate transport of illegally taken wildlife. With passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1972, penalties for poachers were increased. These measures gave the GFC justification for increased funding, which enabled it to enforce laws and prosecute offenders. Thus, the GFC was able to wipe out most of the poaching problem ``in a matter of years,'' according to David.

In Louisiana, where swamplands comprise almost the entire coast, alligator hunting resumed in 1972. Because huge stretches of alligator habitat there allow for fast population regeneration, Louisiana hunters kill more than 20,000 animals a year without significantly depleting the animal's numbers.

In Florida, however, wetlands are distributed throughout the state in small pockets, making regeneration more difficult. This arrangement also means that real estate development of wetland areas has more impact on alligators in Florida. This presents a problem for the species, as Florida's population is expected to grow 46 percent in the next 20 years.

The largest swamp in Florida, the Everglades, is shrinking as development in south Florida moves inland. The metropolitan areas of Orlando and Jacksonville contain wetland regions in river basins and near lakes; both cities grew more than 15 percent in the last five years.

Wetlands development often makes the alligator's recovery seem even greater than it is, says Lt. Richard Lawrence, the GFC's alligator coordinator for the Everglades. When swamplands are filled and developed, alligators are forced to move into more confined areas. The result is an increased concentration, which makes their population seem larger.

Florida has ``some of the strictest measures to protect degradation of wetland habitat,'' David says. Still, the Florida State Department of Environmental Regulations each year approves approximately 160 applications for major dredge and fill projects.

To prevent confrontations between man and alligator that arise from man's encroachment, the state developed a ``nuisance alligator'' program in 1978. Since then, state-employed trappers have been permitted to kill 'gators deemed dangerous to humans. In 1987 about 3,500 nuisance alligators were killed.

Although the hunt is a potentially sensitive issue, no group is officially protesting it. Some, however, are monitoring it closely. Charles Lee, senior vice-president for conservation at the Florida Audubon Society, says alligator hunting ``is not something [we] particularly like to see,'' but we ``are willing to sit back and tolerate it now.'' He says his group ``will carefully watch'' how the hunt is handled.

David suggests that no one is protesting because the GFC's approach has been slow and cautious. He cites the eight years of research and experimental hunting conducted by his agency. This research, he says, has determined that the hunt can be ``a sustained annual program'' that will not significantly deplete the population of alligators.

Two hundred thirty-eight permits will be granted out to those whose names were drawn from nearly 20,000 applications. Before the hunters actually receive the permits, however, they will have to attend a six-hour training and orientation program to learn the regulations regarding trapping methods, tagging, and the sale of hides and meat. Hides will have to be checked at a validation site and retagged with a federal export tag. Each hunter will be limited to 15 alligators, at a length of more than four feet each.

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