S.E.C Ya Later Gators

My Rouses Everyday, September/October 2017

Certain species that share planet Earth with us humans get more attention than others.

In Louisiana the all-time champ has to be one that has managed to survive the longest. From its huge, scaly tail to its stubby, too-short-for-its-body legs, right down to that massive skull full of teeth, the alligator gets more attention worldwide than any other Bayou State critter.

Hasn’t always been that way, though. I remember back in the early 1970s — that was probably when the Louisiana gator was at its lowest population point — it wasn’t so easy to find one. For a number of reasons — including indiscriminate, illegal hunting — the alligator was listed as an endangered species. That’s hard to believe today, with the population estimated now as close to 2 million in the wild, with another 300,000 on commercial farms.

That’s a lot of hides, teeth and meat that goes to good use worldwide. If there ever was a brought-back-from-the-brink-of-extinction success story, it’s the tale of the gator. The raw meat and hide values to Louisiana, estimated at $57 million annually, are just the start of the associated industries of tanning and products like belts, shoes and handbags, as well as tourism and farming operations.

It’s hard to quantify what alligators bring to the state tourism-wise, but ask any out-of-state visitor, and most will say seeing a gator is a high priority. Tasting one? Not so much, but the “El Lagarto,” as the early Spanish explorers called these huge “lizards,” is becoming more popular on menus in and out of Louisiana. Blackened tail and Tong Cho sauce on alligator shoulder are my personal favorites. But the versatility of gator meat hardly stops there, with new and creative dishes appearing on menus — from gator sausage po’boys at the smallest neighborhood diners to sauce piquante at the most exquisite chefs’ tables.

Controlled alligator hunting is also increasingly popular. There are a few ways to become the next Swamp People wannabes. The alligator hunting seasons are tightly regulated and divided into two zones. The East Zone runs from the last Wednesday of August for 30 days, and the West Zone goes from the first Wednesday of September for 30 days.

A resident can purchase a license for $25 but every alligator taken must have a tag attached. Tags are issued to property owners who own wetlands classified as suitable habitats for harvesting gators. The number of tags depends on the acreage. Those tags can be transferred to individual hunters. The only other way for someone to hunt alligators is to hunt with a guide who has access to tags or be lucky enough to have their name drawn from a random lottery the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries (LDWF) conducts to use tags on public lands.

Maybe it’s a matter of ignorance, frustration with technical regulations, a desire to experience the thrill of hunting and eating one of nature’s most fascinating reptiles, or maybe a combination of the three, but alligator-hunting violations are common, although they do seem to be slightly down from a few short years ago, based on LDWF Enforcement records. Each week on my Outdoors Guy radio program, I give a “Bad Boys of the Outdoors” report. There was a period when I saw a steady rise in alligator cases. Not surprisingly, I noticed that it directly coincided with the popularity of reality TV shows featuring and glorifying Louisiana alligator hunting. But don’t take my word for it; citations rose from 60 in 2008 to over 100 in 2012. While cases still occur frequently, it seems the trend of imitating “Amos Moses” is finally starting to fade.

A couple of interesting alligator peculiarities — I’m not alone in noting a marked change in gator behavior. While gators a few decades ago had a natural fear of man and would vanish on sight, today — probably due to more human contact and handling — alligators will come unnervingly close to man in search of food of some sort. The other oddity is the creatures’ built-in survival mechanism that keeps gender numbers equal. Alligator egg incubation temperatures below 86 degrees from days seven to 21 after laying result in all female alligators. Temperatures above 93 degrees from days seven to 21 after laying cause all the young to be males. Temperatures between these two result in batches of both genders. Think gators are big dumb critters? Think again — these peculiarities are just part of why they are our most fascinating animal.

You can find Louisiana alligator in our seafood department year-round. The LSU Tigers take on the Florida Gators on October 7th.