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Florida considers ways to control nuisance gators

Homeowners may be allowed to trap the annoying critters

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Florida officials are considering removing alligators from a list of protected species and letting homeowners deal with them.

Florida officials are considering removing alligators from a list of protected species and letting homeowners deal with them.

Victor R. Caivano, Associated Press

MIAMI — More than 18,000 times last year, Florida wildlife biologists heard a complaint about an alligator.

There's a gator swimming in our lake.

There's a gator sunning itself in my back yard.

There's a gator that ate my dog.

Now, as more and more of the reptiles once prized as endangered are being tagged by Floridians as nuisances, the state wildlife commission is considering rules that would make it easier to trap and kill the black, scaly creatures slumbering on suburban patios. Some proposals might allow homeowners to trap the critters themselves, rather than calling in state-hired trappers. Other ideas include altering the animal's legal status from "species of special concern" to "game," and allowing more extensive hunting.

The state population of alligators is estimated at more than 1 million.

"People recognize now that we have a lot of alligators and they are in no way threatened," said Lindsey Hord, biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Alligator Management Program. "We don't need to be as tolerant of alligators in urban areas because we do have lots of alligators in wild areas — I mean lots of them."

The number of alligator complaints has been rising steadily in recent years, less because of an increase in the alligator population than because of the steady flow of complainants — people — moving into Florida. The human population has increased 11 percent — nearly 2 million new residents — over the past five years.

In 2005, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received more than 18,000 alligator complaints. Trappers removed more than 7,700, according to commission statistics.

"We build thousands of homes every year in the wetlands, and now we're up to our ears in alligators and we wonder why," said Todd Hardwick, a trapper who handles more than 100 gator complaints a year in South Florida for state officials.

"So many times I go out on a call and I hear the same thing. The homeowner tells me, 'I just bought this house last year and it's a gated community and we have 24-hour security and ... this gator moved into our lake.' And I have to say, 'Wait a minute — last year, this was a wetland.' People need to know they live in gator country."

The suburban fear of alligators blossomed this year with three fatalities believed to be alligator incidents, one confirmed officially.

"When you string three mortalities together, then the telephones begin to ring off the hook," said Franklin Percival, associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida and leader of the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. But "if the alligator population is expanding, it's expanding slowly."

The danger may be far less significant than the headlines suggest. The recorded number of unprovoked alligator bites — that is, those not involving trappers or those who handle the animals professionally — was only seven in 2005, according to state statistics.

Floridians' attitudes toward alligators have undergone profound changes in recent decades. Many native Floridians remember swimming in ponds where alligators lived. In this more safety-conscious era, folks take a more cautious approach.

"We didn't think much of it," said biologist Hord, who grew up in Florida and has his own recipe for seasoning and deep-frying alligator meat. "The chances of being bitten are very, very slim."

After poaching and over-harvesting depressed the population to low levels in the 1960s, alligators were placed on the list of endangered species. Their numbers are believed to have since risen dramatically.

The state now allows limited alligator hunts, but the species is still protected under state law. The new rules could loosen the restrictions, possibly even eliminating the size and quota restrictions on private lands.

"My first-grade teacher told me my children might never seen an alligator," Hardwick said. "But my daughter sees lots of them — in fact, we have one at home. Somehow, in 30 years, they've gone from 'endangered' to 'nuisance.'"