Georgia gators a success story

Nothing makes a young person respect nature more than fleeing from it in terror.

I don't usually name alligators, but I would call this Jekyll Island critter "Chompy McSnackens." (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

I don’t usually name alligators, but I would call this Jekyll Island critter “Chompy McSnackens.” (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

In the 1970s, during what seemed like an annual school trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, I made the mistake of walking near an alligator nest. I dodged death by leading a spry female terror lizard on a serpentine frolic through the pines.

Another tip on evading carnivorous wildlife is to never venture into the wild alone. It is far safer to travel in groups of slow people.

You’d expect to find alligators in a swamp, but now it seems they are everywhere, including, temporarily, the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta.

It wasn’t always this way. Greg Waters, alligator program coordinator for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said the alligator population hit a low in most Southern states in the 1960s due to poaching. In 1967, the U.S. placed the 200-million-year-old species on the endangered list.

Conspiracy theorists surmise this was the equivalent of pumping reptile Viagra into every swimming hole south of Macon.

In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the American alligator population had fully recovered and removed it from the list of endangered species.

In the early ’80s, there were an estimated 100,000 alligators in Georgia. Now, there’s at least 200,000, according to estimates by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Since 1990, the Georgia Bulldogs have gone 6-20 when playing the Florida Gators. Coincidence? Maybe, but I blame global warming and bad coaching.

In 2003, there were enough gators for Georgia to start issuing hunting licenses. UGA has gone 8-5 against the Gators since.

Gator numbers (the animals, not the football fans) now seem stable, said Waters.

Recent news reports would make you think we need to build a wall around swampy areas and make alligators pay for it.

A trio of alligators sun themselves in the marsh of Hell Hole Pond on Ossabaw Island, Thursday, March 12, 2009. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

A trio of alligators sun themselves in the marsh of Hell Hole Pond on Ossabaw Island, Thursday, March 12, 2009. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Earlier this summer a trapper removed an alligator from the beach at Tybee Island. The 7-footer was killed because officials said people had been feeding it.

I learned to water ski rather quickly on the gator-infested waters at Reed Bingham State Park, in South Georgia, which closed its beach recently while trappers dragged off a few more gators humans were feeding.

Despite the surge in media reports there’s been only one confirmed death due to an alligator attack in Georgia. In 2007, an 83-year-old Canadian woman was killed by an 8-foot alligator on Skidaway Island near Savannah. She was house-sitting her son’s home and walked near the water at night.

Gators provide a job and cash boost to Georgia economy. Full-time critter wranglers help relocate or dispatch nuisance animals.

A license to hunt your next set of boots will set you back $50, but it’s a hot ticket. Only 1,000 licenses will be issued in 2016 for the season that runs from August to October, but 10 times that many people are expected to apply. Many hunters hire guides who also pay state fees.

“Hunters visit Georgia from out of state,” said Don McGowan, a region operations manager with the DNR. “And they have to pay for lodging and other services. It’s a small boost to the economy.”

Waters, the DNR biologist, said legalized hunting has made alligators a more valued commodity. “It used to be if you had an alligator in a cypress pond you weren’t happy about it. Now, people look forward to hunting them,” he said.

People are getting more comfortable with the large reptiles, says Waters. Maybe too comfortable.

His advice? Don’t feed them and don’t swim at night.

And don’t go near a nest of eggs if you’re ever in the Okefenokee.


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