By Robert A. Thomas
Alligators have long been important to Louisianans for their skins (for belts, shoes, boots, luggage, watch bands, etc.), meat (sauce picante, gumbo, sausage, etc.), and, since the advent of nature-based tourism, as a magnet that draws visitors to the swamps. They have played a major role in our culture: We wear them, we eat them, and we are fascinated by watching them.
In the 1960s, alligator populations were declining throughout the state, partly due to habitat loss but mostly due to hunting. The slaughter continued even after alligator hunting was outlawed in Louisiana in 1962 and alligators were officially protected under the 1967 federal Endangered Species Act (the act that preceded today's federal act).
Fortunately, during the 1960s the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries quietly laid a foundation for management of alligators based on scientific data about the species. From that foundation, the state of Louisiana developed a management program that allows alligator harvest. The result has been not a decline but, rather, a proliferation of healthy alligator populations. While the species does remain listed under the Endangered Species Act, it is in the category of "threatened due to similarity of appearance" (meaning that alligator hides are so similar to other imperiled species of crocodilians that customs officials would have difficulty differentiating them). Today's Louisiana program illustrates the ability of states to manage protected species and the role that harvesting can play.
The state's program began with studies by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, led by biologists Ted Joanen and Larry McNease at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish, and continues under Greg Linscomb and Noel Kinler. Their studies indicated that the alligator could sustain harvests. The program also reflected the fact that, typically, most of the people who own the alligator marshes make their living trapping and fishing, and they view the alligator as competing for the same resources. These individuals once saw alligator poachers as doing them a favor. Without legal hunting, significant poaching would undoubtedly have continued.
Louisiana had its first legal alligator season in September 1972, after the state petitioned the U.S. government to allow a harvest season in certain areas. The decision evoked opposition, especially from animal-protection and some environmental groups. Opponents thought the program would encourage a year-round underground trade in alligator skins.
That did not happen. Based on the work of Joanen and McNease, the 1970 Louisiana alligator population was estimated to be 172,080. By 1993, the number had increased to 992,314 (in fact, it reached 1,149,983 the year before). In 1970, 61 percent of the alligators in marshes were on private property (there were no hard data for non-marsh habitats). During the next twenty years, even though public ownership of alligator habitat expanded, the population in private marshes increased to 75 percent of the total.
Contributing to this progress is the reproductive potential of alligators. While at any one time an estimated 5 percent of the population are actively reproductive females, each female generally lays between 30 and 40 eggs. Thus, each nesting season there are more eggs in nests than the total number of alligators in the wild. If one can ensure nesting success, the population is virtually guaranteed to grow.
The state's management plan, based on scientific knowledge of the species, includes the following characteristics:
- The public season is in September each year. At this time females are typically on nests and thus less subject to harvest than males.
- Alligators can only be caught on hook and line. Previously, hunters using guns would move from alligator to alligator, choosing the age class and size that would give them maximum money for the skins. This removed many reproductive females from the population. "Poling," the practice of using a long pole with a hook on the end, was outlawed since it is not random and gives the hunter the advantage.
- Bait can legally be set anywhere, but by far the easiest location for the harvester is in canals and channels. During September, most alligators in canals and channels are male, so most alligators taken are male.
- Hunters are advised to hang their bait high enough over the water so that only larger alligators can reach it.
- Harvesters must either own or lease the property where they set their lines. This controls the location of hunting and assures that private landowners will reap some benefits from the hunting.
- Each year, the state counts alligators parishby- parish (that is, county-by-county). If population estimates are low, state officials set the harvest low; if high, they set it high. They can, of course, close the season, overall or locally, if the data suggest they should.
- On the basis of the area a harvester owns or leases and the local alligator population size, each licensed harvester is issued a certain number of tags, each with an identifying number. Each tag represents one alligator that can be harvested.
- Each year the department issues a unique cutting pattern around certain scales on the side of the head. This pattern is released when harvesters pick up their tags. It allows skin buyers and enforcement agents to easily identify the year in which a skin was harvested. This practice prevents poachers from selecting prime stock during the year and then using legal tags when the season starts.
Louisiana's system works well in theory, but it also works in practice. I have been on several trips to observe the harvest of alligators and have witnessed a number of indications of a well-managed program. For example, Wildlife and Fisheries personnel have met us and known who was allowed to harvest on the marsh. All alligators that we harvested (some 30 or so) have been males, ranging in size from four to 13 feet. When one alligator lost its tag, the department required us to place a new tag on the skin, reducing our harvest by one. And, each time, I have seen plenty of alligators in the harvest area the following spring.
In addition to the annual harvest, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries encourages alligator farming, in which alligators are hatched and raised in captivity, and alligator ranching, in which eggs are harvested from wild nests and removed to alligator farms. When the young reach four feet in length, 17 percent of ranched alligators must be returned to the site of collection (based on scientific data indicating that natural populations have 17 percent of the young reaching this size). Recently, by the way, there has been controversy over the fate of these alligators. Robert Chabreck of Louisiana State University has stated that most of the released alligators are immediately eaten by adults. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries disagrees. This topic is being researched. Management will be based on the data.
In sum, the program is working. Alligator populations are very healthy throughout the Gulf Coast in their prime habitats. The only negative is that larger alligators tend to be more easily harvested. So while one generally sees many alligators, fewer animals are ten feet or longer. No one has demonstrated any ecological ramifications of this change in size structure, however, or any problems stemming from the removal of alligator eggs from the wild via ranching.
Louisiana's alligator harvest is evidence that state management of an endangered species, with harvesting a key element, can preserve the species. Now that the American alligator issue is behind us, let's tackle the more difficult issues.
Joanen, Ted, and Larry McNease. 1981. Management of the Alligator as a Renewable Resource in Louisiana. Georgia Dept. Nat. Res. Tech. Bull. 5: 62Ð72. ---. 1987. The Management of Alligators in Louisiana, USA; Alligator Farming Research in Louisiana, USA. In Wildlife Management: Crocodiles and Alligators, ed. G. J. W. Webb, S. C. Manolis, and P. J. Whitehead. Chipping Norton, New South Wales, Australia: Surrey, Beatty and Sons, 33Ð42 and 329Ð40.
Joanen, Ted, Larry McNease, Ruth M. Elsey, and Mark A. Staton. 1997. The Commercial Consumptive Use of the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) in Louisiana: Its Effects on Conservation. In Harvesting Wild Species: Implications for Biodiversity Conservation, ed. Curtis H. Freese. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 465Ð506.
Robert A. Thomas holds the Loyola Chair in Environmental Communications and directs the Center for Environmental Communications at Loyola University New Orleans.