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Don't go for the gator gun yet

News of gators' deaths at the hands of armed homeowners has been exaggerated, for now.

By JACOB H. FRIES
Published November 2, 2006


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photo
[Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
Floridians may soon be singing, 'Eat you later, alligator, proclaimed the New York Post.
  • Photos: Gator trapper at work

  • It began innocently enough on Monday with state wildlife officials talking about a survey they had done on Florida's alligators.

    But like a bad game of telephone, confusion snowballed, and before long, newspapers around the world were poised to announce open season on the once-endangered animals.

    "Floridians may soon be singing, 'Eat you later, alligator,' " proclaimed the New York Post.

    That's not exactly true, says the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

    Yes, officials are considering a proposal to make it easier for trappers to hunt alligators and homeowners to dispose of those on their property. But it's only a proposal and it would be at least two years before any regulations were changed. There would have to be extensive study and public hearings.

    "It's a long process," said Steve Stiegler, a wildlife biologist in the commission's alligator management program.

    The thing that got everything started was a 45-question survey. The wildlife agency wanted to know what people thought of the state's alligator population, now healthy at more than a million.

    So in September, staffers posted the survey on the agency's Web site and solicited responses from trappers, the public and industry officials on questions about current policies toward the animals and whether it was time for a change.

    With 638 survey responses, agency staff then prepared a list of possible recommendations that will be presented at the commission's meeting in December. Among the suggestions is considering whether to change alligators' protected status and list them as a game species to be hunted like turkey and deer.

    Right now, hunting is very limited, and homeowners with nuisance alligators must call a state-licensed trapper.

    Despite the media frenzy, Stiegler downplayed the significance of the recommendations, saying that agency staff itself was divided on many of the proposals.

    That hasn't stopped trappers and wildlife groups from questioning some of the proposed policies. Mickey Fagan, a Pasco County trapper, raised concerns that empowering homeowners to handle nuisance alligators could be dangerous.

    "Messing with an alligator isn't like messing with a raccoon or a rabbit," Fagan said. "People don't realize it's a freshwater shark. They'll eat anything.

    He added, "There will be more fatalities if people get fooling with them."

    Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, a prohunting environmental group, said he hadn't had an opportunity to question state officials about the proposals but also cautioned inexperienced Floridians against confronting alligators.

    However, he added, the fact that alligators are now so abundant that the state can even consider loosening some hunting regulations is a testament to the agency's conservation efforts.

    "It's really a wildlife success story," he said.

    Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 445-4156 or jfries@sptimes.com.

    [Last modified November 2, 2006, 00:21:13]


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