Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Wildlife officials could downgrade alligator classification

by BRIAN SKOLOFF Associated Press
WEST PALM BEACH, Florida - State wildlife officials have developed several potential changes to Florida's alligator management program, including removing the reptile from its list of imperiled species and allowing homeowners to deal with nuisance gators themselves. The proposals come after the first broad review of the alligator management program in its 20-year history, developed through public input over a 10-day period in September.
A draft proposal was posted on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Web site Monday. The commission will hear the options at its December meeting and will make recommendations to state scientists. Some of the new rules could take affect by late next year. State alligator coordinator Harry Dutton said Tuesday that further public input is also needed before anything takes affect.
Officials estimate there are up to 2 million alligators in the state. The potential downgrading of the alligator from species of special concern to game could occur within five years and would remove it altogether from the state's list of imperiled animals. That could lift restrictions that now make it illegal for a homeowner to kill a nuisance alligator on their property. Currently, they must first contact the commission, which contracts with a trapper to come remove the gator.
Palm Beach County trapper Rick Kramer said removing those restrictions could mean trouble for people who aren't professionals. "I think it's going to cause some dangerous situations," Kramer said. Also under the current protections, alligator hunting is limited to a several-week period and each hunter is only allowed two gator kills per permit. The potential change in classification would mean, among other things, reduced restrictions on alligator hunting and possibly allowing for more kills over an extended period of time. But the process is still under review.
"We're still trying to reach conservation goals. We're still trying to reach certain recreational goals," Dutton said. "It's a very long and very complicated process to remove it from the state's list of imperiled species." Dutton said the potential changes have nothing to do with the three fatal alligator attacks that occurred in one month earlier this year, but are simply in response to the state's successful conservation efforts over the past four decades.
Alligators were once thought to be on the brink of extinction after years of over-hunting, leading to their listing as an endangered species in 1967. They were removed from the federal list in 1987. They have remained under state protection at least in part because of their similarities to the American crocodile, which is a federally endangered species. Biologists now believe there is about one alligator for every nine of the state's nearly 18 million people, but dangerous encounters are still extremely rare. Just 18 fatal attacks have been reported since 1948, not including two of the three deaths in mid-May that are still under investigation.

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