tampabay.com

Widening the net for gators

The state might loosen rules on who can trap the nuisance critters.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published May 12, 2007


State wildlife officials are considering a new way of dealing with reports of nuisance alligators: do it yourself.

For nearly 30 years, the state has relied on professional trappers to deal with complaints about alligators intruding on suburban lawns. But under a draft plan released Friday, homeowners who discover a gator less than 4 feet long floating in their pool or blocking their driveway would be allowed to capture and kill the critter themselves.

"We're trying to make the program as flexible as possible," said Harry Dutton, alligator management program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "If folks have the capability and are up for it, then fine."

The 4-foot rule is a safety measure designed to make sure homeowners leave the big gators to professional trappers, Dutton said? Of course, it's risky to tangle with even a small gator.

"I'm not saying they couldn't bite you, but lots of stuff bites," Dutton said. "Handling a cocker spaniel might be more dangerous."

Currently, anyone without a state license who harms a gator, even if he feels threatened, could face charges.

Officials are still tweaking the details on just how the new approach to alligator trespassers would work. For instance, Dutton said a homeowner couldn't just kill a gator without getting the proper paperwork.

People still need to report the gator by calling the state's hotline, 866-FWC-GATOR, Dutton said. Then state officials would issue a "harvest authorization." Wildlife officials could e-mail or fax it to the caller for immediate action, or drop it in the mail for delivery in a few days, Dutton said.

So a homeowner might have to wait by the mailbox while an alligator sits in his carport? "You're fleshing out a detail here that has not been fleshed out yet," Dutton said. "Maybe we could give them an authorization number over the phone."

The proposed plan would be presented to the state wildlife commission in June, Dutton said, and could either be approved, sent back for revision or sent out for public hearings.

There was a time when alligators were on the brink of extinction, but efforts to save the species have worked so well that wildlife experts now estimate about 1-million roam what's left of Florida's wild spaces.

As Florida's human population has grown to more than 17-million people, the conflicts between gators and humans have grown as well. In 2005, the state wildlife commission fielded more than 18,000 complaints about alligators showing up in backyard canals and stormwater retention ponds. Last year, the number of complaints rose to 21,000.

Because a state wildlife officer has to go check out each complaint, that has strained the agency's resources, Dutton said. That's what prompted state officials to consider allowing homeowners to tackle the problem themselves.

Since 1978, the state has relied on freelance trappers to deal with larger nuisance gators - generally anything larger than 4 feet - by catching and killing them. The trappers are supposed to recoup their expenses by selling the meat and hides.

In 2005, the state's 38 licensed trappers caught and killed 7,700 nuisance gators. Last year, they captured and killed 11,000.

Under Florida's draft plan, a homeowner facing a small gator who did not want to kill it personally could call in a professional to do the job - and not necessarily one of the licensed gator trappers, but anyone in the business of catching wild animals.

"There's lots of critter gitters out there," Dutton said.

In the fall, when state wildlife officials first raised the possibility of letting homeowners kill smaller gators, professional trapper Mickey Fagan said that seemed like a bad idea.

"Messing with an alligator isn't like messing with a raccoon or a rabbit," Fagan said. "There will be more fatalities if people get fooling with them."

But Capt. Dave Markett, a Tampa fishing guide licensed to take customers on gator hunts, said state officials should allow homeowners to do whatever is necessary to stop an intruder.

"The average homeowner should have the right to defend his property, his family and his pets," he said. "What I hope we don't see is a widespread feeling that every alligator is a nuisance alligator."

States such as Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina also use professional trappers to deal with complaints about alligators of all sizes. Every year, Louisiana's 65 licensed trappers handle 5,000 complaints and kill 2,500 gators, said alligator program manager Noel Kinler.

Louisiana would be unlikely ever to turn that job over to homeowners, he said.

"If nuisance complaints rose we would try to add additional hunters," Kinler said. "There's something inherently dangerous in letting the general public handle alligators."

Florida averages about seven alligator attacks a year. Since 1948, when the state began keeping records, there have been 281 unprovoked alligator attacks, 18 of which proved fatal. There have been 143 bites that state officials count as "provoked," usually because they occurred while people were harassing or handling alligators.

Even a small bite carries a big risk because infection can result from the bacteria in the gator's mouth. Even so, state officials do not consider gators smaller than 4 feet to be much of a threat, Dutton said.

"Size does make a difference, in our minds," he said.

Times staff writers Terry Tomalin and Jacob H. Fries contributed to this story.

Fast Facts:

Management plan

The draft alligator management plan will be presented at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting June 13 in Melbourne. The plan has not been posted on the commission's Web site, but to read a report on the history of alligator attacks, click on www.myfwc.com/gators/nuisance/GatorBites.pdf.