Lurking in the resacas and canals of southernmost Texas, the largest reptile in North America has enjoyed a relatively safe haven for decades. Chomping an occasional fish, turtle, or unwary mammal, including a few dogs, the gators have flourished throughout the interconnected waterways of the lower Rio Grande Valley. A mature alligator has no natural enemy unless it encounters another territorial gator. However, the toothy hunters are about to become the hunted.
"We are going to have our first alligator hunting season," said Jarret Barker, Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Warden. "It is going to come up April 1 and run thru June 30. It is going to give anyone who has a valid hunting license the opportunity to hunt an alligator for three months."
The Valley has harbored a relatively small population of alligator's along the coast at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding ranch land since the 1970's. When refuge biologists began surveys of the gators in 1980, they counted 56, and none of the reptiles were more than seven feet in length. Surveys have not been conducted for several years, but following several dry years estimates remain under 60 on refuge property. However, there are several in the ten foot size range. Nobody knows how many are roaming the resacas and canals of the Lower Valley, but alligators have been reported in Brownsville, San Benito, Los Fresnos and in the Arroyo Colorado which runs from Mission to the Lower Laguna Madre.
American alligators are found in 10 states throughout the lower Atlantic coastal plain and along the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Grande. Excessive hunting put alligators on the endangered species list in 1967, but numbers rebounded sufficiently by 1987 for them to be removed. Alligators remain protected and may be hunted only during specified seasons. Texas alligators have recovered dramatically, and in the East Texas counties of Jefferson, Chambers and Orange, Parks and Wildlife biologists estimate there are more than 250,000 gators.
In the 22 core counties of East Texas, that represent the bulk of the state's alligator population, the season runs from September 10-30. In all other counties the season runs from April 1-June 30. "We were trying to make it available for more people to participate in alligator harvesting," said Amos Cooper, who is a natural resource specialist and head of the state's alligator program. "In the past it was based on a quota, and you had to have so many alligators to be able to harvest them, but now if you see one you can take that one."
That is welcome news to many Valley residents like Charlie Bruce, who has resaca property near Los Fresnos. "I love alligator meat. I would like to give it a try and see what I can do. I'd like to get an alligator, vacuum pack it and throw it in the freezer."
"If we see a big surge of people trying to do this a red flag may go up, and we may shut the season down," Cooper said. "We want to allow them the hunting opportunity, but we don't want to deplete the population."
There are quite a few regulations to comply with when hunting alligators and game wardens want the public to be fully aware of all the rules. "You can't use a fire arm unless you are hunting on private property and the pond that you are hunting where the alligator is located is completely owned by the landowner," Barker said. "Otherwise, you are going to have to use an alligator gig, or you are going to have to use a hook and line or you are going to have to use lawful archery equipment."
When hunting gators on a privately owned body of water, you must comply with an additional restriction. "You are allowed to shoot it with a legal firearm, which is not a 22," Barker explained. "You need to use center fire ammunition, a shotgun or deer rifle of some sort. However, if you just shoot it, and he's out there in the water he's going to sink to the bottom and render the animal useless."
If you manage to hook or arrow a gator and drag him to shore, then you are allowed to kill the animal with a firearm. "Once you have hooked him and got him over to your private property you are allowed to dispatch, to put the animal down. You can use a 22 or other rim fire ammo for that purpose only, Barker said."
If someone has a nuisance alligator behind their property, and they are concerned for their children or their pets, then this is an opportunity to legally remove the reptile and maybe get some tasty meat and alligator hide boots in the bargain. Wardens caution hunters to be sure and obtain permission before entering any water body or property.
"If you happen to have an alligator that you know of that is in a resaca behind your house, what you are going to need to do is put out a hook and line set and secure it to a tree." Barker advised. "The hook line set that you use needs to be a minimum of 300 pounds of test strength. You can bait it with chicken. If you don't have a tree you can set a metal stake and secure the line to that. You need to check that line on a daily basis. You don't want to catch an alligator and have him out there on the hook for too long. We want to do this as humanely as possible." You are allowed to hunt or fish from a boat, but you have to have permission to access the water.
In Texas the largest wild alligator harvested was a male measuring 14 feet four inches and weighing close to a thousand pounds. The longest documented alligator was taken in 1890 from Louisiana. It measured 19 feet two inches and probably weighed some 2,000 pounds.
"If you are hunting alligators you need to be prepared," Cooper warned. "How are you going to handle it? What are you going to do with it? Do you know how to skin it? It is not easy to skin an alligator. The hide is the most valuable part and you don't want to put nicks in it."
"Once you dispatch an alligator, you want to immediately fill out and attach a wildlife resource document," Barker said. The resource document is on page 96 of the Outdoor Annual that hunters receive when purchasing their license. This document should accompany the animal until it is permanently processed. Within 72 hours of harvest hunters are also required to fill out an alligator hide tag report, this form is on the same page as the wildlife resource document. The department will then mail a permanent hide tag which the hunter should attach within 10 inches of the tip of the alligator's tail immediately upon receipt.
"I want to stress again, you only get one alligator per license year," Barker added. "Oftentimes, there are several alligators in the pond."
There are additional regulations, and for more information visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website www.tpwd.state.tx.us, consult the Outdoor Annual or call the Brownsville office at 546-1952.
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore