'Alligator farmer' means a person who raises
alligators under controlled conditions which prohibit free movement of the
animals onto and off of the farm or controlled area, and who may harvest
alligators under the supervision of the department.
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
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
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
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
Each year, the state counts
alligators parish- by-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
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
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.
The information for this web page was gathered
from the following site:
by Robert A. Thomas http://www.perc.org/gators.htm
to view photos of alligators.