Florida looks to ease alligator hunting law
By David Fleshler
Sun-Sentinel Staff Writer, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011
A generation after Florida reopened alligator hunting, state wildlife managers plan their first review ever of the law that has allowed thousands to pursue the state's most famous reptile with gaffs, bangsticks and harpoons.
Alligator hunting resumed in 1988, after this former endangered species rebounded so vigorously that it was showing up in backyards, parking lots and playgrounds. The number of alligators killed - and transformed into gator nuggets, shoes and wallets - rose steadily as quotas expanded, from 2,551 in 2000 to 7,736 last year.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, at its most recent meeting, authorized its staff to begin working on a package of amendments to the alligator hunting law to be presented to the state Legislature. Harry Dutton, coordinator of the alligator management program, said the review may simply streamline a statute that was probably overloaded with rules because of the sensitivity of hunting a former endangered species.
"It was a time when the alligator was just considered fully recovered and there was a lot of concern," he said. "It's been 23 years now. It's probably long overdue."
Charles Lee, advocacy director for Audubon of Florida, said the alligator appears to have stood up well. But he said the population remains too low in some regions, including possibly the Everglades.
And he said the tendency of hunters to go for trophy prey has deprived many parts of the state of the huge, decades-old alligators that had been a part of Florida's natural heritage.
"They are an iconic feature of the natural landscape, so I lament the areas I go to where these big, grandfather alligators have been snuffed out," he said. "They're pretty rare these days, and I think hunters had something to do with that."
Under the current hunting program, the state establishes quotas for different lakes, rivers and regions to prevent excessive hunting in particular areas.
A drawing is held for permits, with more than 6,000 issued for the statewide hunt that ran from Aug. 15 through Nov. 1. Each permit holder may kill up to two alligators.
The hunt is tightly controlled, with tags and forms required for each kill.
Al Hernandez, a Dania Beach electrical contractor who has been hunting alligators for about 12 years, said the state's hunting program appears to have made little dent in alligator populations.
"When I go up the Kissimmee River I see easily 100 gators," he said. "On Lake Okeechobee some nights I see 50 or 60."
Hernandez hunts after midnight, when the alligators are hunting. On one occasion, he encountered a 10-footer consuming a smaller alligator. "You could hear the crunching of the bones," he said.
On a recent hunt on Lake Okeechobee, he saw a nine-footer head out to hunt. He brought his boat behind the gator, and when it turned he snagged it with a hook, used a bangstick to fire a shotgun charge into its brain and - just to be safe - severed its spine at the neck.
He takes his gators to a processing plant that yields gator cubes, which he deep fries with Cajun seasoning.
There are about 1.3 million alligators in Florida swamps, rivers and lakes, with the number fairly stable over the past few years, Dutton said.
Nuisance alligator complaints are up sharply over the past 20 years - from 11,965 in 1991 to 14,418 last year - although they're down from their peak of 18,307 in 2006.
Dutton said the review may result in the removal of extra rules that aren't applied to game animals such as deer. For example, the review may remove the rule requiring minors hunting with a parent to have a separate license, he said. And it may remove the lifetime ban imposed on anyone with a poaching violation.
But he said the review was unlikely to result in an increase or decrease in hunting.
The review will begin with internal staff work as well as public outreach sessions. The aim is to bring proposals late next year to the wildlife commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor. If the commission approves the proposals, they would go to the state Legislature in 2014.
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