MARSH TO MARKET
The American Alligator in Louisiana Benefits Heavily from LDWF’s Sustained Use Program
story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Arguably, the comeback species of the 20th century, the American alligator has thrived since its stay on the Threatened and Endangered Species list in the 1960s and ‘70s. In Louisiana alone, alligator populations have flourished from around only 100,000 in 1963 to a conservative estimate of about two million in the wild today.
The rebound didn’t just magically happen. It was the result of a painstaking process by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and its many partners that started in the 1960s and continues today to make sure the alligator, one of Louisiana’s iconic symbols, prospers.
A major part of this process is sustainable use of the alligator, known as “Marsh to Market.’’
There remains a perception that buying alligator products is detrimental to its survival. In fact, the opposite is true. When consumers buy alligator leather goods, meat and other merchandise they are aiding in the animal’s survival in a significant way. Much of the money derived from those purchases goes right back into making sure the alligator success story continues. And that money benefits not only the alligator but also the coastal habitat where it dwells as well as other species that make Louisiana marshes their homes.
Quite frankly, without this model it is doubtful the alligator’s comeback would have been as successful.
Simply put, if you want to help alligators the best thing you can do is buy goods made from the harvest of the animal. It’s why the alligator returned from precipitously low numbers and why it continues to proliferate now.
Those who came together for the common good of the alligator in Louisiana realized that in the 1970s when they developed the game plan for bringing back the animal.
“The Louisiana model is the model for the world,’’ said LDWF Secretary Jack Montoucet, who previously owned an alligator farm before taking over as the department’s top manager. “We’ve developed an industry that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I travel all over the place. When I tell the story of alligators in Louisiana, people can hardly believe it.’’
Wildlife managers from around the United States and from numerous other countries have beat a path to Louisiana’s door to develop similar sustained use programs. Working with the Louisiana model, those countries have helped crocodilian species increase their populations and build viable economic industries that help increase the populations.
The value of the alligator industry in Louisiana is impressive. Since 1972, when LDWF’s sustained use program began, more than 1 million alligators have been harvested from the wild and 5.6 million farm-raised alligators have been sold. Conservative estimates have Louisiana’s alligator industry contributing more than $100 million annually to the economy.
But it isn’t just about dollars and cents. Management of the alligator in Louisiana is a careful, intense process that takes into account habitat, collaborative research on how to further help the animal, as well as working with various user groups to make sure their interests are represented.
One of the many positives of the sustainable industry is that it doesn’t cost the Louisiana taxpayer any money.
“Our American alligator program pays for itself,’’ said LDWF Alligator Program Manager Edmond Mouton. “It generates revenue that allows us to administer the program and also generates money for our alligator council to use towards industry needs. Our staff works very closely with the industry people. It’s a productive working relationship.’’
Back to the Beginning
The commercial value of alligators goes back to the 1800s when they were primarily harvested for their skins. Unregulated hunting in the 1900s led to a gradual population decline that saw the alligator numbers drop significantly in the 1950s. In 1962, the Louisiana alligator harvest season was closed.
That’s when biologists began to closely study the alligator. One of the key factors in the research was to establish survey methods to better gauge the alligator population.
The alligator was totally protected by the federal government from 1962-72 and put on the Endangered Species Act list in 1967. That protection allowed alligator populations to rebound quickly.
But LDWF biologists knew a plan had to be developed to make sure the numbers didn’t regress. That’s when they developed the sustained use management program.
Louisiana was allowed by the federal government to have a limited alligator season in 1972 in Cameron Parish only. In 1973, Vermilion Parish was added, Calcasieu Parish in 1975 and nine additional coastal parishes in 1979. Finally, in 1981, with populations on the rise, the season was extended statewide.
Alligator skins were the primary product from harvests. Export of those skins out of the United States is heavily regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. It was enacted in 1975 and is enforced to make sure international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Because of CITES and its rigorous rules, consumers can be assured that using alligator products from Louisiana and the rest of the United States is not detrimental to the species.
Down on the Farm
LDWF’s Alligator Program has a three-pronged approach. It involves wild alligator hunters, the farming/ranching program and the nuisance alligator program. All three are vital in the success of the model.
Alligator farmers in Louisiana have played a significant part in assuring the wild alligator populations flourish. One of the requirements for them is to return a portion of their alligators into the wild to ensure recruitment after collection of wild eggs.
LDWF biologists learned early on the value of the farming program. They discovered alligators could be grown in captivity efficiently. And farmers figured out that collecting alligator eggs from the wild was more economical and successful than captive breeding.
When private egg collection from the wild started in 1986, alligator ranching in Louisiana increased quickly.
But to make sure the populations weren’t diminished in the wild from egg collection, LDWF required farmers and ranchers, of which there were 55 licensed in Louisiana in January of 2017, to return some of the farm-raised alligators to the wild within two years of hatching. That number began at 17 percent. The wild alligator population is doing so well now that the department dropped the return rate to just 10 percent of eggs hatched starting with 2017-year egg permits.
In fiscal year 2016, 58,107 farm-raised alligators were put back into the wild from farmers while 616,546 alligator eggs were collected, producing 548,416 hatchling alligators.
“This system represents an allowable wild alligator harvest,’’ Mouton said. “Coupled with the state authorized wild alligator egg harvest program, it gives Louisiana a population utilization unmatched by any other agency in the world of crocodilian management.’’
During 2015, about 328,000 farm-raised alligators were harvested with a total estimated value of $71.1 million.
“What the department did to begin the farming program was awesome,’’ Montoucet said. “It put gators in the wild. It puts pretty good size gators back knowing they would survive at, at least 4 feet.’’
Farm-grown alligator hides are the most coveted by the leather industry. Alligator skins are graded from one to three with one being top of the line. Those skins are used to craft handbags, boots, wallets, watch straps and other leather goods.
But farmers have also found other ways to market harvested alligators. The meat of alligators has become popular.
Montoucet’s former business heavily marketed alligator meat. In 1991, he moved into selling meat. Working with the Alligator Advisory Council, LDWF and others, he and some other alligator farmers began working to get it on the market. It did better in foreign countries initially. But Montoucet said he knew it could sell in the United States, too.
“I got together with various groups and said, ‘Look, we’ve got a market in the United States that we haven’t developed or touched,’ ‘’ Montoucet said. “I said, ‘We have more than 300 million people (in the United States). I can’t believe they can’t consume 3-4 million pounds of meat.’ We worked on that and it came together. Around 1997-98, we started cranking it out.’’
Then in the early 2000s, some of the reality alligator shows hit television.
“The market really increased then,’’ Montoucet said. “And it’s been going well since.
“Farm-raised gators, that meat is awesome. It’s consistent. It’s tender. It’s pretty. It presents well.’’
It also is a healthy meat option.
Researchers are also finding uses for alligator carcasses that could be used in the beauty products and pharmaceutical industries. The high amount of collagen in alligator bones can be extracted and may have biomedical applications. Similarly, keratin from alligators may potentially be used in wound care.
Wild alligator harvest is another important part of the program. Since 1972, more than one million alligators have been taken in the wild. In 2015 alone, 35,410 animals were harvested by 3,109 licensed alligator hunters. The estimated value was $11.6 million.
The harvest occurs in September so that hunters will primarily target adult males. Adult females would be more susceptible if the season was held in the spring or summer.
Monitoring the Habitat
Making sure alligators have quality habitat in Louisiana is as important to the sustainable harvest as monitoring the animals themselves.
“I would say protecting the habitat is everything,’’ said Alligator Program Biologist Manager Jeb Linscombe. “We put a lot of resources and do a lot of research into making sure we have robust habitat in our coastal marshes. You see the payoff when we do that. As long as alligators have significant habitat, they’re going to be fine. They’re thriving right now.’’
About 81 percent of Louisiana’s coastal alligator habitat is privately owned. That means the sustained use program gives economic incentive to private landowners and alligator hunters who lease that land to make sure the habitat remains in good condition.
One tool LDWF uses to keep tabs on habitat is its annual coast wide nest survey. It is essential for monitoring populations and also determines wild alligator harvest and egg harvest quotas. By keeping track of these numbers, the program stays in line with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding of no detriment requirement so Louisiana alligator products can continue to be exported.
Those alligator nest projections have been very high since 2011. In the summer of 2015, 2,800 miles of transects were flown, covering approximately 135,000 acres of wetland habitat. It was estimated that 47,760 nests were present in coastal marsh habitats, a 3 percent increase over 2014. In fact, the previous four years have been the highest – except for an outlier year in 1987 – since the surveys began in 1970.
Because of prime habitat and rising alligator populations, the chance for more interaction with humans is certainly on the increase. Retention ponds in new subdivisions can be like magnets for alligators.
For the most part, alligators, though fierce animals, have a healthy fear of humans. They’ll avoid coming into contact with them if at all possible. Alligator females are very protective of their nests and young, however, and that could provoke them. And feeding alligators is highly inadvisable as it habituates the animal and allows them to see humans as a food source.
Resolving alligator/human conflicts is where the nuisance control program is crucial. Alligator nuisance control operators will remove animals as necessary. To help with their expenses, the operators are allowed to harvest the alligator and to process the skin and meat for commercial sale.
Okay to Buy Alligator Products
It’s certainly noble to be vigilant about the exploitation of wild animals. Poaching is something that many nations around the world are fighting and making sure the sale of endangered animal products is prohibited is key in the battle.
But because the American alligator has rebounded so well in the southeast United States, consumers can be assured that when they buy alligator products, whether shopping here or abroad, they are, in no way, hurting the animal’s population status.
“We know this industry is sustainable,’’ Mouton said. “There is a management program for these animals. These animals aren’t declining in the wild. Globally, in a lot of other crocodilian markets there is well-founded concern, especially in countries that don’t have well-regulated collection processes from the wild. The question for many people when they buy products from certain species of crocodilians is, ‘Is this sustainable?’ When it’s from Louisiana, we can answer with a resounding ‘Yes.’ ‘’
For more information about LDWF’s alligator program, go to lagatorprogram.com.
What to do if you encounter an alligator
Louisiana has a healthy population of American alligators. Here are recommendations and suggestions from LDWF when encountering them.
Perhaps the most important advice, says LDWF Alligator Program Manager Edmond Mouton, is not to feed or approach alligators.
“When alligators are fed by humans they overcome their fear and natural shyness and become attracted to humans,’’ Mouton said. “That is why it is so vital not to feed or entice them. We also strongly recommend not swimming at any time in areas frequented by alligators. Also, it is important to not allow small children to play by themselves around water bodies that may contain alligators.’’
Some other do’s and don’ts when coming in contact with alligators recommended by LDWF:
- Do use common sense and precautions.
- Do inform others that feeding alligators creates safety problems for others who want to use the water for recreational purposes.
- Don’t throw fish scraps into the water or leave them on shore. Although you are not intentionally feeding alligators the end result can be the same.
- Do dispose of fish scraps in garbage cans at boat ramps or fish camps.
- Do enjoy viewing and photographing wild alligators from a safe distance of at least 50 feet or more.
- Don’t kill, harass, molest or attempt to move alligators. State law prohibits such actions, and the potential for being bitten or injured by a provoked alligator is high.
- Don’t remove any alligators from their natural habitat or accept one as a pet. It is a violation of state law to do so. Alligators do not become tame in captivity and handling even small ones may result in bites. In particular, never go near hatchling/young alligators or pick them up. They may seem harmless, but the mother alligator may be nearby, and may protect her young for at least two years.
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