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Alligators make remarkable recovery

By John N. Felsher

Chosen sportsmen will fan out through the swamps and marshes of southern Alabama on sweltering summer nights to battle dinosaurs fully capable of killing and eating humans.

In the Southwest and West Central Zones, which includes the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the annual state alligator hunt runs from Aug. 14-17 and Aug. 21-24. In the Southeast Zone, which includes Lake Eufaula, the season runs from Aug. 8-24. Only sportsmen who received a limited number of tags may kill alligators.

“Alligators are very common in southern Alabama,” says Kenneth Blalock, an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources conservation officer. “They range as far north as Tuscaloosa on the Black Warrior River and Montgomery on the Alabama River. The hunt takes place at night. Hunters must snag a free swimming alligator with a bow and arrow, harpoon, rod and reel or snatch hook and secure it to the boat before shooting it with a firearm.”

People in southern Alabama routinely see alligators today, but a few decades ago, they nearly disappeared from state wetlands. From colonial times to the 1930s, people considered the reptiles vermin worthy of eradication as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the prehistoric beasts typically lived in swampy places largely inaccessible to most people back then.

After World War I, products made from alligator leather became chic and more people took to the swamps to make their fortunes. By the 1920s, gasoline-powered outboard motors began to grow in popularity. Armed with modern firearms, more powerful motors and larger boats, hunters could venture farther into remote wetlands to meet a rising demand for leather and successfully bag alligators with little regulation.

With alligator numbers plunging, Alabama banned gator hunting in 1938, the first state to pass laws protecting the remnant population. In 1967, the federal government placed alligators on the Endangered Species List, giving them national protection. Protected by state and federal law, the big reptiles multiplied steadily. By 1987, the federal government removed alligators from the Endangered Species List, but the beasts remained protected or highly regulated. However, as populations continued to increase, states began to allow limited harvests to cull surplus animals.

In 2006, Alabama opened its first alligator season in nearly 70 years. During the initial season, 46 Alabama hunters including five women bagged 40 gators. The reptiles ranged in size from 7 feet, 7 inches to 12 feet, 4 inches. The biggest one weighed 461 pounds.

“We started an alligator season in Alabama because we felt we had a viable population of alligators that would support a limited hunt each year,” Blalock says. “The largest gator taken in Alabama since 2006 was taken by Keith Fancher on the Alabama River in 2011. It measured 14 feet, 2 inches long and weighed 838 pounds.”

Louisiana, where I grew up, closed its season in 1961, but reopened a very limited harvest in 1972. Today, Louisiana allows a statewide commercial harvest of about 30,000 wild alligators and more than 250,000 pen-raised alligators each year, but we seldom saw alligators when I was young. In fact, I didn’t see my first alligator until the late 1960s as the giant reptiles began to recover.

Dad always tried to turn every outdoors excursion into a death-defying adventure. He called every place “out in the middle of nowhere” and always said that we were the first people ever to venture up some nameless bayou or slough. Always, dinosaurs, giant alligators, man-eating snakes and other frightening creatures waited just beyond the next bend. A single digit midget like me believed it.

On one such trip through a Louisiana swamp with my dad, two older brothers and cousin, we motored through ebony waters under massive cypress trees eerily draped with Spanish moss. As usual, Dad spun his bone-chilling yarns of giant kid-eating alligators waiting to pounce on us at every bend in the bayou as we explored this vast, forbidding wilderness of no return.

Full of teen-aged bravado, my cousin and brothers each tried to outboast the others in their false fearlessness. Each jostled to see who would first take the honor of diving into the water with a knife clenched in his teeth to fight the savage beast like Tarzan — should an alligator so foolishly appear! They bragged about the wonderful leather boots, wallets and other items they would make with the hide of this mythical leviathan that until that moment none of us had ever seen.

As we rounded a bend, we saw our first real live alligator, about an eight-footer sunning itself on a log just a few feet away. Dad pulled out his knife and offered it to my brothers and cousin. “There he is, boys. Who’s going first?”

The alligator rested blissfully on its sunny log as we glided past it to the fading echoes of, “He said he wanted to go first.”

“No, it wouldn’t be fair for me to go first …”