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In the Swamps: The Business & Conservation of Gator Hunting

In the Swamps: The Business & Conservation of Gator Hunting

Brandon Butler takes aim at the "kill spot" on the alligator's head. Photo courtesy of Polly Dean.

With the potato rake I probed the murky water, feeling for the rope. I finally located and raised it out of the water, then hesitantly grabbed hold of the line. Hand-over-hand I slowly made progress in bringing closer what was providing resistance at the other end.

I was pretty sure that it was an alligator and not just a massive heap of grass and moss. The unknown was, how large of a gator.

More and more of the rope dropped to the deck. We had been told to make sure the tall items were clear of the rope and I was probably going overboard (no pun intended) in heeding the instructions. But, I certainly had no intention of getting my foot entangled and going into the water with whatever was on the other end of the line.


My hunting partner, Brandon Butler, and I had already harvested two gators at Grosse Savanne Waterfowl and Wildlife Lodge in southwest Louisiana. Up to this point the animals had acted fairly sluggish, probably because they had spent several hours tethered to a rope. However, as the morning progressed that would prove to not be the norm. The gator on the 25-foot line had somemore fight in it.


Struggling, I finally saw its head explode to the surface. I hung on as the big reptile pitched and rolled at the side of the small boat. The plan was for me to control the alligator for Brandon to take a shot, but I had met my match. Our guide Monty Pearce grabbed the rope and expertly rolled the alligator over so that Brandon could clearly see the top of its head.

A clean shot with the .22 magnum rifle ended the struggle. Monty soon had the 6 1/2-foot gatoron board. I had been sure it was twice that size as I struggled with it!

Brandon and I continued to take turns"pulling" and shooting as Monty maneuvered the boat. The "kill" spot on the head was only a couple inches between the eyes, and was sometimes hard to pinpoint on a thrashing gator, especially when the beast was covered in matted grass.

Polly




The experience got intense at times, but in less than two hours we had 10 gators, tagged and piled in the boat. The hunt actually began with baiting on the previous afternoon. Pearce and Grosse Savanne Field Operations Manager Doug Miller had taken us out to show how it is done. Bamboo poles with ropes tied to 12/0 hooks were placed throughout the private patch of marshland.

Monty motored up to each pole and Doug placing a chunk of chicken on the hook. A clothespin held the bait a foot or so above the water's surface. The rule of thumb is the higher the bait, the bigger the gator that can reach it, as alligators can lunge more than half their body length above the surface.

Monty said that about half as many gators are usually taken as the number of baits put out. Upon inspection the following morning, we found all of the baits taken, but many of the gators had escaped. That just reinforced why it was no accident that these creatures have survived millions of years and would be around many more.


Including one alligator that Brandon shot within an hour of setting out the bait on that afternoon, the final count was 11 gators out of 23 baits. Based on the 50,000 acres of alligator habitat at Grosse Savanne, the lodge is eligible for 221 tags annually to properly control and maintain a healthy alligator population.

The lodge prefers to have all their tags filled by the start of early teal waterfowl season, which gives hunters plenty of opportunity for action in a short amount of time.

Success Story

The American alligator wasn't always so plentiful. Unregulated harvest throughout the South in the 1920s, 30s and 40s nearly wiped them out from existence. In 1938, the state of Alabama took action and was the first to protect them. Other states followed and in 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the American alligator on the Endangered Species List.

Two decades of protection allowed the species to rebound and by 1987 it was removed from the list, but still federally protected. Today, the alligator population has grown so significantly that they pose a nuisance in many areas throughout the South.

Due to their increase in numbers, hunting alligators is now legal in eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. And they are being harvested in record numbers and at record size.

A huge alligator caught by a family in Alabama during the recent 2014 season set a new Safari Club International world record. The 15-foot, 9-inch gator was captured by Mandy Stokes. The official weight of 1,011.5 pounds was declared on the second attempt at weighing after the giant beast completely destroyed the winch assembly during the first attempt.

The use of a park backhoe was enlisted for the second weigh-in attempt. Mandy Stokes and her party captured the alligator near Millers Ferry in Alabama on August 16, 2014. The giant gator beat the former SCI record of 14-feet, 8-inches, by 13 inches. By default, since Alabama does not officially keep records, Stokes gator is also the top gator in Alabama, beating a 14-foot, 2-inch, 838-pounder killed in 2011.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission post their alligator-harvest data dating back to 1977, with the numbers of nuisance gators being harvested that year. Their hunter-harvested alligator data begins in 1981, with 350 being taken that year. The number of alligators harvested by hunters on public land in the year 2000 grew to 2,552, while in 2013 that number increased to 8,014 alligators.

The average length of harvested alligators in Florida over the past 14 years varies from 7-foot, 11-inches to 8-foot, 8.2-inches. The largest male for length in the Florida record book measures 14-foot, 3.5-inches taken in 2010. The heaviest male tipped the scales at 1,043 pounds and was captured in 1989 as a nuisance gator.

The number of nuisance gators harvested in Florida in 2013 was 6,605, a lower number than in previous years. The total exceeded 11,000 in 2006 and 10,000 in 2007. Proper management of the populations with regulated hunting has perhaps contributed to the reduction in reported nuisance gators.

Alligators harvested by hunters on private lands in the Sunshine State exceeded 4,000 in 2013, and have averaged close to that number in the past decade, further indicating that the population has successfully rebounded.

In Georgia, hunters reported 29 percent success in 2013, harvesting 246 alligators out of 850 permits drawn. In 2003, 72 gators were harvested from a total of 184 permits. The average success rate over the past 11 years is 31 percent.In Mississippi, out of the 676 applicants who hunted in 2013, 449 hunters harvested 670 alligators. That year also proved to be a record-breaker in size as well for the Magnolia State.

The brief season had just begun, and hunters broke the record twice in four days. August 30, one day after the hunt opened, a Brandon, Miss., hunter and two friends caught a 756-pound, 13-foot and 1.75-inch gator in the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks confirmed as a new state record, on September 2, it was broken by three hunters from Starkville who harvested a 13-foot, 5-inch gator weighing 792 pounds.

Legal Methods

Baiting alligators is not a legal method of harvest in all states. Other legal methods for taking gators include rods/reels, hand-held ropes or snares, snatch hooks, harpoons and gigs, or arrows with a restraining line attached. The allowed use of these methods varies from state to state.

Doug Miller of Grosse Savanne Lodge hangs pieces of chicken from 12/0 hooks to attract the gators. Photo courtesy of Polly Dean.

Legal hunting hours vary as well with some states allowing hunting day or night, while other states only allow hunting at night. Check your state's hunting regulations for details on legal methods of harvesting alligators and for deadlines to apply for a permit.

Some states require successful applicants to take a mandatory hunter-orientation class, while other states offer alligator-hunting guides as recommended reading prior to the hunt.

After The Hunt

Alligators are big business along southern coastlines and especially in Louisiana. Outfitters and guides profit from the sport that many hunters don't want to tackle without experienced help. But after the hunt, the harvested gator continues to bring in big bucks.

Very little, if any of the reptile goes to waste. After harvest, few game animals are as likely to be eaten, mounted and worn as alligators.

The hide is skinned, tanned and used for fine leather products. The soft belly hide is especially desirable. Boots, handbags, wallets and belts crafted from the hide of alligators demand top dollar. Top fashion designers in Europe purchase many alligator hides from the state of Louisiana.

Steve German's Taxidermy Art in Lake Charles, LA displays an assortment of items that are made from the alligator's hide. Photo courtesy of Polly Dean.

Because of the hide's value, those hired to skin the alligators are highly skilled and often work around the clock during the short alligator seasons. There is no room for mistakes, for any nicking of a hide greatly reduces its value.

Local taxidermists garner much of their business from hunted alligators. They prepare mounts, process hides and custom-design products ranging from belts and boots to handbags individually crafted for the purchaser.

Alligator Farming

A large part of the alligator industry involves the farming or ranching of these reptiles. The business is profitable and like states' wild alligator management programs, is also heavily regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies.

All commercial trade is monitored by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Though alligators are not endangered in the U.S., they are listed due to their similarity of appearance to other endangered crocodilian species.

Greenwood Gator Farm in Gibson, La., raises 5,000 to 10,000 alligators a year for the commercial sale of their hies and meat. They also take in about 3,000 additional wild alligators that are harvested during the season. The farms operation has been featured on television's "Swamp People" series, in an episode featuring Swamp Lady Liz Cavalier bringing in a 12 1/2-foot monster.

The farm conducts tours for the public, demonstrating how they harvest wild alligator eggs and raise the animals. But, they also release a percentage of that stock back into the wild to maintain the population.

By law, farms collecting eggs must transport them in a manner that insures the greatest survival rate. Failure to hatch at least 70 percent of eggs collected may result in the farm losing its permit.

Farms also are required to return no less than 12 percent of the raised alligators back into the wild in the same areas where the eggs were collected. The released alligators must be at least 36 inches in length, but no more than 60 inches. These gators have a  higher survival rate than those living in the wild.

Demand is on the rise and prices are reflecting that as the alligator farming industry looks forward to a profitable future.

We are noticing things are pretty stable now and gradually creeping up," said Ruth Elsey, biologist for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Meat prices are also going good. For the meat, it's a supply and demand thing. The demand is very high right now and it supports the local economy and farmers. Plus it's a pretty healthy meat."

Louisiana is the leader in alligator production in the U.S., holding about 75 to 80 percent of the American market. Since the inception of Louisiana's alligator management program in 1972, conservative estimates have valued its resources at over $700 million.

This is due to the basic philosophy of developing a sustained use management program that provides long-term economic benefits to landowners, hunters and farmers.

More importantly, it protects the habitat and ensures the survival of the species.

Brandon Butler and the author show off one of the gators they double-teamed on the hunt.

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