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Authorities Suggest Ways for Living With Alligators
HOUSTON — Encounters between people and alligators are on the rise in Southeast Texas, but people can coexist safely with the big reptiles if they take common-sense precautions, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens and biologists.
Along with a new ban on feeding alligators, authorities are emphasizing proactive education, including the need for people to better understand how to evaluate whether an alligator is a nuisance and take appropriate steps on their own.
In recent years, there’s been a steady rise in alligator complaints logged by the communications center at the TPWD Law Enforcement Division office in La Porte. Annual nuisance gator calls for this region have risen steadily: 280 calls in 2000, 320 in 2001, 336 in 2002 and 422 in 2003. More than half of these calls came from five counties: Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Harris, and Liberty.
In spite of the increase, human injuries from alligator attacks are rare. In the past 15 years, there have been 15 reported alligator injuries statewide, and no one has ever reported a person killed by an alligator in Texas.
"We need to help Texans learn how to live with alligators," said Capt. Albert Lynch of TPWD’s south Houston law enforcement office.
"Most of the ’nuisance’ gator reports we receive are not true problem gators that have lost their fear of people, and we need people to learn to identify the real problems and leave the rest alone. In Florida, where people have coexisted with a large gator population for years, you don’t see this level of public concern. We’re on the front end of that learning curve in Texas."
Lynch said the increase in human-alligator encounters is probably mainly due to continued expansion of residential and business development into alligator habitat. The suburbs keep expanding into what used to be coastal plains and bayous. At the same time, alligators are expanding their range in Texas, particularly small gators seeking new habitat.
Biologist Monique Slaughter, who helps run TPWD alligator programs out of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur, points out gator activity is highly seasonal.
"Springtime is when alligators are most active," Slaughter said. "They’re on the move looking for new territory, looking to reproduce. So April-July are the peak months for nuisance gator calls."
Periods of extreme weather conditions such as drought or heavy rains can also trigger alligators to relocate, Slaughter said.
Slaughter said alligators dig dens known as gator holes in levees and banks along bayous, sloughs, or other secluded areas. During the winter, these dens offer protection and cover. In mid summer, females build nest near these sites. When hatchlings hatch out, they stay close to the gators holes for safety. During drought periods, these holes may be the only water source for other wildlife.
Slaughter said TPWD estimates there are 286,000 alligators in Chambers, Jefferson, and Orange Counties, but no statewide population estimate exists. She said annual night counts across the state since the 1970s show that the overall alligator population in Texas has not increased dramatically, but gator populations do appear to have increased in certain areas, and gators are relocating into new areas. Alligators currently are found in 120 of the 254 counties in Texas. Hunting statistics for the past 15 years show the average adult Texas gator is seven feet long and weighs 60 pounds.
In 1969, the alligator was protected by a state law that preceded the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. At the time, it was considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A combined effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies in the south brought the alligator back, allowing it to rebound in many areas where it had been depleted by unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. The alligator was removed from the endangered list in the 1980s. Since 1984, sustainable hunting has been allowed in Texas and Louisiana.
Houston-area game wardens have taken several steps recently to make sure nuisance alligator responses are safe and effective, yet humane. They have ordered new traps and trailers for game wardens to relocate live gators and plan to make optimal use of professional nuisance alligator hunters who have the experience and equipment to relocate or kill gators.
Lynch said the new live traps are 8-by-3 feet rectangular metal cages that can be baited next to a pond. Once an alligator is caught, the traps can be winched up onto a truck or trailer to move the alligator.
The department has taken another step to help minimize conflicts between people and alligators. In October 2003, it became a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $25-to-$500 for any person who intentionally feeds a free-ranging alligator. Use of bait for legal hunting by licensed hunters or nuisance alligator control hunters is not interpreted as feeding.
Alligator experts say the most important rule for the public is to never feed an alligator or allow it to get food. Once an alligator loses its natural fear of people it must typically be killed, since if relocated it would only seek people and become a problem somewhere else.
People should keep a safe distance from gators of at least 20 feet or more. Besides never feeding wild alligators, these tips should reduce the risk of an alligator conflict involving you or your pets: keep your pets on a leash or in a penned enclosure, don’t get too close to or swim in areas where alligators are commonly observed, don’t harass or agitate an alligator, never approach an alligator nest or a pod of young alligators that a female alligator might be guarding, remember that alligators are most active at dawn and dusk in the warmer months of the year, and always treat them with the respect they deserve as wild animals.
Information about alligators, including safety tips for "Living With Alligators," research reports and basic natural history, is on the TPWD Web site (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wild/reptiles/americanAlligator/).
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