During my career with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, I was fortunate enough to witness and participate in a few conservation success stories. Perhaps most notable is the recovery in Louisiana of the American alligator.
When I began my career in 1977, alligators were protected under the Endangered Species Act. Loss of habitat, illegal harvest and overharvest were primary reasons for diminishing wild alligator numbers.
In the central part of the state, where I worked, habitat loss was the big problem. The soybean was “the gold that grows,” and millions of wetland acres were being cleared and drained for bean farming.
Alligators were hanging on where they could, and Spring Bayou Wildlife Management Area in Avoyelles Parish still had a good population. Good enough, in fact, to be visited by two outdoor journalists employed by the National Geographic Society.
We took them on a nighttime tour of the lakes and bayous in the WMA, and they were able to photograph several gators.
But habitat loss was not the alligator’s only problem. Poaching for the meat and skins was and remains a problem.
Perhaps even worse was the needless killing of gators out of fear and ignorance.
Many fishermen incorrectly blamed alligators for consuming large numbers of game fish, and shot them on sight. We frequently found dead alligators floating in waterways — some with the tails removed, others untouched.
Apprehending offenders in such cases is very difficult. The good news was that, since the gators were protected under federal law, we could get the cases into federal court where vigorous prosecution was guaranteed. This created good deterrent and gave the gators an extra measure of protection at a time when it was really needed.
While wildlife enforcement agents were doing their best to protect alligators, wildlife biologists searched for ways to facilitate a speedy recovery of wild populations.
Overharvest of alligators in their primary swamp and marsh habitats was another reason for population declines.
Wildlife professionals knew the quickest road to recovery would be to reestablish the gator as a valuable commercial commodity, thus giving landowners a financial incentive to sustain gators on their land.
The decisions made and the path chosen to achieve that goal is, in my opinion, the greatest restoration success story in the state.
Since restoring wild populations to harvestable levels was not going to happen very quickly, researchers focused on ways to produce alligators through farming and creating a market for farm-raised gators. On the production side, intensive study led to the best methods for incubating eggs, and rapidly growing hatchlings to marketable size.
The trick was getting the eggs, and the first landowner incentive was egg production. Regulations were established to provide for wild egg collection from nesting alligators on private land. The landowners could then sell the eggs to gator farms for incubation, hatching and rearing.
The sweet part of the deal for alligators was this: Once the eggs were hatched, the farmers were required to return a percentage of the hatchlings to the wild.
Landowners loved it, since it was obvious more gators meant more eggs to collect and sell. It was also pretty obvious the rapidly rising alligator numbers would expedite return of management of the alligator to the state and establishment of wild alligator harvest.
It worked, and Louisiana now has a successful alligator farming industry and a tremendous harvest of wild gators during the September alligator season.
The market for alligator hides, parts and meat is well served by the combination of farming and hunting gators. Farm-reared gators provide a steady, year-round supply of meat and top-quality hides of uniform length, with little of the scaring or damage often found on wild skins.
Wild alligators provide meat, as well as the larger skins some tanneries prefer.
Sport hunting for alligators has also enjoyed a tremendous rise in popularity due, in no small part, to the now famous Landrys and their television show “Swamp People.”
“How do I get to go on an alligator hunt?” is definitely one of the top 10 questions I receive.
Alas, wildlife agents still on the job tell me they have seen a significant rise in alligator violations since the show gained popularity. So I guess some would-be “gator getters” would just as soon dispense with the formalities.
I do wish there were more opportunities for the average outdoorsman to hunt alligators. Contracting a sport hunt with a licensed alligator hunter is a bit pricey and beyond the means of many people who would love the experience.
Years ago, when the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began allowing the hunting of wild gators on WMAs and public lakes, a random lottery system was in place. Anyone could apply, and the winners were each allotted five tags for the particular lake or WMA.
It was popular but went by the wayside when the agency decided to go to a bid system for public land gators. That’s a shame.
With alligator populations thriving and the current widespread interest in hunting them, maybe it’s time for the department to explore ways to create more opportunities for Louisiana alligator hunting.
Got a question? Ask Keith!
If you have a question about wildlife and fisheries enforcement, shoot a note to Keith LaCaze at firstname.lastname@example.org.