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Authorities Suggest Ways for Living With Alligators
HOUSTON — As Texas residents expand their homes and businesses into alligator country, encounters between these normally shy reptiles and humans are increasing. And late spring through summer is alligator mating and nesting season, when gators are more likely to be visible.
“Springtime is when alligators are most active,” said Monique Slaughter, a TPWD biologist who helps run the alligator program out of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur. “Courtship and mating begins in late spring and continues through early summer. April-July are peak months for nuisance gator calls.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens and biologists stress education rather than over-reaction as a first step in dealing with gators and suggest a “live and let live” approach whenever possible.
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, many of which are not true “nuisance” alligators. In 2004, the office reported 690 calls, about half of which required no game warden action. Most of these calls came from five counties: Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Harris, and Liberty.
“We now have procedures in place where we can educate callers that alligators are not normally aggressive, and if you leave them alone they’ll leave you alone,” said Inez Tipp, who has been TPWD’s communications supervisor in the Houston area for the past seven years. “When you have an aggressive alligator there’s no doubt, but a lot of the calls are from people who just have no idea that there are alligators here and have never seen one before.”
In Texas, no fatalities have been documented due to alligators. In the past 15 years, there have been 17 reported injuries due to alligators statewide, none life threatening.
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 nests 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 alligators and other wildlife.
Slaughter also said that TPWD estimates there are 286,000 alligators in Chambers, Jefferson, and Orange Counties, but no statewide population estimate exists. 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, a state law that preceded the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 protected the alligator. 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.
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 to find food and become a problem somewhere else.
People should keep a safe distance from gators of 30 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.
Teachers will soon be able to educate their students on alligators and other reptiles and amphibians in the Harris/Galveston County areas. The TPWD Urban Wildlife Biologists in the area are working on an educational tool, (the “Reptiles and Amphibians in the City” trunk), and it can be checked out as early as August by schools, Boy Scout groups or other organizations. The trunk, in developmental stages now, will contain demonstrative tools such as an alligator skull and a small alligator head, pop-up books and power point slides to help identify key species of local reptile and amphibian.
“We have a series of trunks that we let schools or other people use,” said Keith Crenshaw, a biologist with the project. “It helps when we use the trunk to help educate kids.”
Information about alligators, including safety tips for Living with Alligators, research reports and basic natural history, is on the TPWD Web site.
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