Louisiana considers putting fewer gators back into wild

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — John Price is a Louisiana rancher. But instead of hooves and horns, his livestock have scales and claws, and sometimes they put their food into what’s known as a “death roll.”

That didn’t seem to faze Price on a sunny October afternoon as he threw open the door to one of the low-slung barns where his animals live, even as he pointed to the scars on his arms and hands he’s gotten from them.

After all, these creatures — ranging in size from foot-long hatchlings to an 8-footer that stared unblinkingly from 6 feet away — are his business, and business is about to get a little better on his 15-acre ranch near Abita Springs.

Indeed, alligator ranchers across the state got some good news last month: The commission that regulates their industry voted to lower the proportion of ranched alligators that must be returned to the wild, starting next year.

The cut — from 12 percent to 10 percent for alligators that are at least 48 inches long — may seem small, but it’s nevertheless a boon for ranchers and a sign that Louisiana’s efforts to bolster the population of wild alligators are paying off.

For Price, the change means one thing. “That’s a direct addition to the bottom line,” he said.

Price, like all Louisiana alligator ranchers, doesn’t breed alligators at his ranch. Instead, he collects the eggs every summer from wild gators’ nests on private land.

The eggs are hatched at the ranch and raised there until they are about 4 feet long, the size at which the skin is the most valuable. Alligators at that size have scales that are the right size to be made into belts, wallets, watchbands and the like, Price explained. When they get larger, the scales are too big.

Most of them are then sold for their hides, meat and other parts. But not all: 12 percent of hatched 4-footers must be returned to the wild within two years of the eggs being collected. For alligators that are 3 feet long, the percentage is higher. For those closer to 5 feet, it’s slightly lower. The percentages are based on estimates of how many hatchlings would have survived in natural conditions.

In business terms, the gators returned to the wild are a loss. But the proposal approved last month by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission means ranchers won’t have to return as many to the wild, so they will have more to sell.

It won’t happen immediately, however. The proposal must go through a public comment period. If finally approved, it would take effect with eggs collected next year. Ranchers won’t actually be able to return the lower percentage until 2018 at the earliest.

The change — only the third in the three-decade history of the state’s alligator ranching program — also means that Louisiana’s gator population is rebounding from historic lows reached in the middle of the last century and may be approaching a healthy level.

“It’s a win-win-win,” said Ruth Elsey, a biologist manager with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Conservationists win because alligators’ habitat and the gators themselves are being protected and increased. Landowners win because they are able to make money by providing a good habitat. And ranchers win by being able to sell a marketable product.

Benefits are not limited to those in the alligator industry, either. By encouraging landowners to care for the coastal marsh zones where the majority of alligators breed, the program benefits other species as well, Elsey said. The program has helped waterfowl, fish species and fur bearers, and that has benefited marsh-oriented businesses, like swamp tour companies and airboat operators.

All told, alligator ranching is estimated to be a $100 million industry in Louisiana, Elsey said.

In addition, the state’s hunting program allows about 40,000 wild alligators to be harvested each year.

Elsey said the hunting and ranching program differs from some other methods of species conservation.

“It’s a little opposed to the method of total protection, hands-off,” she said. Rather, officials see the alligators as a resource, and they want to encourage “wise utilization of that resource.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Interest in alligators as a source of meat and leather dates back to the early 19th century. Between 1880 and 1933, more than 3.5 million alligators were killed, a rate greater than 64,000 per year. Most were sold for boots, shoes, saddles and other leather goods. That hunting took a big bite out of the wild gator population, and by 1962 hunting was outlawed.

Less than a decade later, officials began an attempt to count the wild alligators in an effort to develop a program that would satisfy the commercial demand while allowing the population to recover. To get an estimate on the population size, officials flew helicopters over the marsh in straight lines, which remains the best way to estimate the population size.

In that first year, officials counted just 8,600 nests.

Alligator ranching began in the mid-1980s and relied on ranchers collecting eggs from nests in the wild and hatching them on their own. When the program was first implemented, the percentage of hatched 48-inch alligators that had to be released into the wild within two years was 17 percent. In 2000, that was reduced to 14 percent, and in 2007, to 12 percent.

“All indications are that the program is working,” Elsey said.

This year, officials counted 58,100 nests, a record number. There are an estimated 800,000 alligators on ranches and more than a million in the wild in Louisiana.

Mark Shirley, a Vermilion Parish alligator rancher who has been in the business for 20 years, said the progress is easy to see.

“Everybody knows we got alligators all over the place,” he said. “You find them in all the suitable habitats around the state: coastal marshland, rivers, bayous and swamps.”

He’s ready to see that progress extend to the ranchers, too.

The state has “always been very conservative on the harvest quotas and release numbers,” he said. The new reduction is “going to add up to some money.”