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The Great Gator Comeback in America

Listed as endangered just half a century ago, the American alligator now thrives across the South.

The Great Gator Comeback in America

The comeback of the American alligator is one of our great conservation success stories. (Shutterstock image)

Apex predator: A predator at the top of a food chain that is not preyed upon by any other animal except, possibly, humans.

The American alligator certainly falls into that category. If you want to see where the dinosaurs went, look no father than your neighborhood pond or lake. Evolution has not changed them much in 8 million years.

Gators are found in 10 of the southeastern states. They live in a broad swath that stretches from North Carolina to Texas and includes both Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, southeast Texas and tiny corners of Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Alligators were legally hunted in the United States until the early 20th century. Dwindling numbers led state wildlife agencies to issue rulings limiting the take of alligators in the 1940s, but as numbers continued to fall, alligator seasons were eliminated completely. State and federal wildlife agencies put strict conservation measures in place. In 1938, Alabama was the first state to protect alligators. Other states followed suit, and in 1967 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the American alligator on the Endangered Species List.


THE START OF THE COMEBACK

By the 1970s, alligator numbers were bouncing back. In 1975, the Florida Game and Fish Commission (predecessor of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) received more than 5,000 complaints about nuisance alligators. At first, wildlife officers simply relocated problem animals to other parts of the state. The rapid increase in alligator numbers, though, caused biologists to reevaluate the gator’s status. Eventually, the GFC created the nuisance alligator program to remove animals that wildlife officers felt posed a potential hazard to humans and domestic animals. By the early 1980s, Florida had initiated a limited experimental harvest to assess how much impact hunting would have on gator populations.


In 1987, the USFWS removed the alligator from the Endangered Species List and states began opening alligator seasons. Florida had its first statewide commercial harvest in 1988.

Across the region, alligator numbers have rebounded—in some places to all-time highs. Most states that have alligator populations allow some degree of hunting; Oklahoma and North Carolina do not.

Not all states survey alligator numbers the same way, and some don’t do alligator surveys at all. In Florida, biologists run annual surveys, but we also can draw inferences from harvest data. Here, nuisance trappers harvested 535 alligators in 1977. In 1988, the first year of the commercial harvest, nuisance trappers and hunters together took a total of 7,452 alligators. By 2018, the total annual harvest reached 16,547.

Taken at face value, that number might suggest alligator numbers are exploding. That may have been the case in the 1980s and 1990s, but alligator numbers in Florida are fairly stable right now. While the alligator harvest fluctuates some, it’s generally been in the 16,000 to 18,000 range since 2006.


Georgia also relies on harvest data to monitor gator numbers. In 2003, the first year Georgia allowed alligator hunting, the total harvest was only 72 animals. In 2018, hunters took a total of 278 alligators. This represents a 286-percent increase in harvest during that 15-year period. This number includes only alligators that have been taken through hunting; the Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s Wildlife Resources Division says nuisance trappers remove about another 450 alligators annually.

In South Carolina, where alligators are present only in the eastern half of the state, hunters harvested 452 gators in 2008, the second year general alligator hunting was allowed. During the 2017 season, the number of animals harvested was only 343, indicating that the population in South Carolina likely is fairly stable.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) runs an annual alligator survey along approximately 317 miles of waterways on 15 routes in 13 counties. Biologists recently estimated that the state has between 32,000 and 38,000 alligators, far fewer than either Florida or Louisiana. Currently, alligator harvesting is limited to the removal of nuisance alligators by licensed agent-trappers. The MDWFP classifies "nuisance" alligators as any gator that has preyed upon or attempted to prey upon humans, pets or livestock, or an alligator that shows aggression toward and a lack of fear of humans.In Texas, Jonathan Warner is the Alligator Program Leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife. He said biologists estimate there are between 400,000 and 500,000 alligators in the Lone Star State. However, that has not translated to an increase in human-alligator conflict.


"I’ve been in this position since February 2017," says Warner. "There have only been two bites that have been reported to my office in that time. Both were from wading fishermen. One was in brackish water fishing for redfish, and he stepped on the alligator and was bitten on the leg. The other one was bass fishing in freshwater. We have a lot of alligators in southeast Texas, and a lot of outdoorsmen and -women who fish and duck hunt and are in these habitats constantly. Our experience with human-alligator conflict, by every measure we have, seems to be extremely low.”

Go On, Getcha a Gator

Gator Comeback
Want to hunt alligators? These three states provide the best opportunities. (Shutterstock)

1. If you’re interested in hunting alligators, Texas should be the first state on your list. "We have an extensive fall hunting season that helps control the numbers," says Jeff Warner of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "We’re the only state that also has a limited spring season." The fall season runs September 10 to 30 in 22 "core" counties where the largest alligator population is located; the spring season is open from April 1 through June 30 in the state’s "non-core" counties.

2. Louisiana is divided into two alligator hunting zones: East and West. The East Zone opens the last Wednesday in August, while the West Zone opens the first Wednesday in September. Both zones are open for 30 days.

3. Florida alligator hunts are limited-entry hunts, and you’ll have to wait until 2021 to attempt to draw a tag. Phase I applications are due between May 8 and May 18 each year. The statewide alligator hunting season begins August 15 and ends November 1.

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