As I idled up recently to my first downed line—with an alligator who had taken the bait at line’s end— there were a lot of thoughts going through my head, and conservation wasn’t one of them! But on the way back to the launch with two alligators in my boat, I thought a lot about how lucky I was to be participating in a hunt that’s a Louisiana cultural tradition dating back centuries…and how science and the willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification for long-term sustainability created this opportunity for me. And how that formula can address so many other problems of sustainability that we face today.
American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) have been hunted for centuries across the northern Gulf of Mexico states, first by native peoples and then by European settlers. Commercial hunting of alligators for hides and meat in the region dates back to the 1800s as demand for alligator leather increased sharply during the Civil War.
At that time, there were so many alligators that nobody ever dreamed they could be overhunted. So hunting proceeded unregulated until harvest levels began to swiftly bottom out in the 1950s due to overhunting and habitat loss. In fact, numbers dropped so much that alligator hunting across the southeastern United States was closed from 1962-1972, and the alligator was listed as an endangered species across its range. During the closure, alligator populations quickly recovered, but restoration of the economic benefits that this species provided for people would take longer.
To bring alligators back to sustainable levels and keep them there demanded conscious, collective action on the part of many. The decision was made to fund the maintenance of alligator populations through a viable commercial harvest, which required both a regulated harvest and sustainable commercial alligator farming practices.
The result: A substantial economic incentive to landowners, commercial alligator farmers and harvesters to protect alligators and maintain and enhance wetlands. It also required that people of different perspectives, economic statuses and backgrounds work together toward a common goal — restoring a species that is critical for our wetlands, at the heart of our culture, and vital for the livelihood of many Gulf Coast residents.
And science was the bedrock upon which all of it was built. Beginning in the 1960s, copious scientific research delved into the questions about life history, ecology and management that were necessary for alligator recovery.
In fact, in the early 1990s, when I was brand new to Louisiana, I participated in one of the last of those research projects. In it, I looked through stomachs of harvested wild alligators for the aluminum tags that researchers had put on farm-raised alligators that had been collected from the wetlands as eggs, raised and then returned to that habitat.
This was important research because returning an annual allotment of these farm-raised alligators back to the wild is necessary to ensure a stable population, but the question is how many is enough. And a big part of answering that question was knowing whether farm-raised alligators were just becoming hors-d-oeuvres because they were raised in captivity, or whether they were actually surviving and breeding.
So, while it was dirty, smelly work, this mark-recapture study was necessary to understand how many of the farm-raised alligators were getting eaten by wild alligators and, ultimately, how successful this component of the restoration program was. And to a young wildlife biologist, it was great!
This large body of scientific research on alligator life history, ecology and management culminated in an ecologically sound alligator management program that is used as a model for managing crocodilian species worldwide and one of the most recognized wildlife conservation success stories in the United States.
But this success story included more than science. This success also happened because people wanted a different future — a future with this iconic species, living in sustainable numbers. Therefore, they believed the science and accepted its bottom line — if you want your kids and grandkids to be able to see and harvest alligators in Louisiana, you have to change and accept strict regulation of what you do now.
And you know what? It worked.
Louisiana’s alligator population has grown so much that recreational hunters are now offered a chance to participate in a lottery alligator harvest on state-owned wildlife management areas. I was one of the lucky hunters that received tags for the Maurepas Swamp—75,000 gorgeous acres of cypress-tupelo swamp between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
When science and the desire for a different tomorrow resonate, great things are possible. This model, which ensures a future where my sons will see alligators and have the opportunity to participate in this cultural tradition, can be transferred to so many critical problems facing Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico—problems like loss of coastal wetlands and oyster reefs.
The alligator story gives me hope. But for now, I’m going to concentrate on what’s on the end of my line!
(Image: The author and his downed alligators. Source: Bryan Piazza.)