Wildlife Management... saving species, habitats, and cultures.
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Wild Harvest History
- 1800 Earliest record of use of alligator leather; thousands used for boots, shoes, saddles, etc.
- 1855 Sporadic demand; first as a novelty leather and in Civil War to supply confederate with shoe/boot leather. In late 1860s, alligator leather rose to top of fashion scale of all leathers
- 1880-1933 Approximately 3.5 million Louisiana skins harvested, largest 19’2”
- 1939-60 Commercial harvest of 18,005/year
- 1962-72 Louisiana closed season statewide; turned attention to professional management of this resource, extensive research, and federal and state laws governing alligators enacted (listed in Federal Endangered Species Act, 1967)
- 1970 Louisiana Legislature enacted Act 550 giving Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries full authority to regulate the alligator
- 1970-72 Framework for implementation of a sustainable use program developed
- 1972 Experimental hunt in Cameron Parish yielded 1,350 alligators by 59 hunters @ $8.10/foot and totaled $75,505
- 1975-77 Experimental hunt expanded to three coastal parishes (Cameron, Vermilion and Calcasieu)
- 1978 No season – limited market in U.S. and ban on overseas shipments due to Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
- 1979-80 Harvest expanded to 12 coastal parishes
- 1981 Alligator reclassified in remainder of state to Threatened due to Similarity of Appearance (TSA); harvest expanded to entire state
- 1990 Skin prices reached high value, averaging $57/ft.
- 1997 Coastal nest density projections highest recorded since 1970
- 1999 “Bonus” tag program implemented; suspended in 2009 due to poor voluntary compliance with size limitations
- 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alter nesting habitat
- 2006 Worst drought in 111 years of recorded weather history adversely affect nesting
- 2007-2008 Two excellent nesting years lead to record egg production and wild harvest quotas
- From 1999 through 2006 Wild alligator harvest averaged some 33,000 animals annually
- 2008 Hurricanes Gustav and Ike further alter nesting habitat
- 2009 Worldwide economic crisis adversely affects alligator harvests
Farm Program History
- Prior to 1972 Very limited alligator farming industry. Lack of stock limited the industry. Closed breeding pen system only source of stock. No harvest, several were tourist attractions. Eight farms established by 1972
- 1972-85 Over 13-year period 10,336 were harvested; number of farms increased to 15
- 1977 Louisiana began hatchling supplement program, providing stock from state-owned lands
- 1986 First allowed collection of wild eggs from private lands (“ranching”). After reaching ~ 4 feet in length, 17% were returned to areas from which eggs were collected, duplicating expected natural survival; first releases to the wild made in 1988. Sustained use philosophy allows landowners to gain revenue from egg sales and egg collection averts significant natural mortality of eggs and new hatchlings
- 1986-89 Wild egg collections expanded tremendously; limited success with captive breeding led to culture pen production gradually diminishing. Twenty-two farms in 1986 increased to 83. Harvest totaled 111,081 during this period.
- 1990-93 Wild egg collections (rather than captive breeding) adopted by the industry as primary source of stock; number of farms peaked at 134 in 1991
- 1994-99 The number of licensed alligator farms gradually decreased, while total on-farm inventory increased as some very large farms expanded and competition was difficult for smaller farms
- In the year 2000 The “returns to the wild” obligation percentage decreased from 17% to 14% (starting with returns due in 2002) as good growth, survival, normal feeding and reproduction were documented by farm releases
- 2005 Record egg collection of 507,315 wild alligator eggs (prior to 2005 hurricanes) illustrated “sustained use” management philosophy as tremendous natural mortality from flooding and saltwater intrusion avoided
- 2005 Record on-farm inventory of over 600,000 alligators
- 2007 Return obligations decreased to 12% of eggs hatched with 2007 year permits; returns due in 2009
- 2008 New record egg collection of 530,579 eggs harvested; new record on-farm inventory of nearly 732,000 alligators as of December 2008
- 2009 Worldwide economic recession slows demand for farm-raised alligators, farmers collect only 30,000 wild alligator eggs in an attempt to reduce on-farm inventories
Louisiana Alligator Management Program
The State of Louisiana has increased its wild alligator population from less than 100,000 to over 1.5 million in the past 30 years. Initially all harvest of alligators was stopped, allowing the wild population to stabilize. Then years of telemetry studies were conducted to determine nesting chronology and habitat requirements. State officials realized that saving a species is directly related to saving the habitat. Since 80% of the wetlands in Louisiana are privately owned, the economic incentive of a successful alligator program is a vital aspect of such a program. Alligator hunting has a very long history in our state.
A controlled wild harvest has been carried out since 1972. This harvest program was slowly expanded from the southwestern parishes to a statewide program. After ten years with a closed season, this regulated annual harvest created a strong economic incentive for landowners to maintain or enhance wetland habitat. This benefit with conservative quotas established by LDWF was also received by hunters and the rural communities in general. The wild harvest has grown from 1,200 to over 32,000 alligators taken annually.
During the 1980s an alligator ranching program was developed. An alligator egg collection program was initiated in 1986. Permitted landowners may sell alligator eggs to farmers every summer. Strong egg prices proved an additional incentive to keep the wetlands wet and wild. Provided with ideal conditions, these farm-raised alligators grow to four feet in twelve to eighteen months, as opposed to 3 to 4 years in the wild. Due primarily to predation, less than 15% of wild alligators ever reach this 4-foot size, but those that do, have an excellent chance to survive to adult size. To insure a stable, increasing wild population, the farmers take 12% of their 4-foot plus alligators and, using airboats, return them to the wild. The wild population is very carefully monitored.
The state economic impact from both consumptive (i.e. meat and hides) and non-consumptive (i.e. swamp tours, photography, ecotourism) alligator use is estimated at up to 60-70 million dollars per year. The wild season is set in September, when breeding females are hidden away with their nests. So, primarily males and non-breeding females are hunted. No other species in the world is regulated at the level of alligators. A CITES (Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species) tag is required for all harvested alligators. The tags are issued based on the population estimates derived from nest counts. Furthermore, information such as landowner, hunter or farmer, length, and shipper are recorded for every wild alligator harvested in compliance with state and federal rules for crocodilian management.
Export of alligator skins and products out of the United States is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This treaty, which became effective in 1975, regulates the international trade in protected species; its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) administers CITES requirements and controls for the United States. The species covered by CITES are listed on one of three Appendices, according to the degree of protection needed. Currently, the alligator is listed on Appendix II of CITES, because of their similarity of appearance to other crocodilians that are truly endangered or threatened.
1. Alligator Populations
Louisiana has more alligators today than in the days of our grandfathers. Populations are increasing steadily. Nests counts have increased from 6,700 in 1971 to 43,000 in 2008. Wild populations are estimated to be just over 1.5 million. There are also over 500,000 alligators on ranches in Louisiana; in some years 600,000-700,000 may be in captivity.
2. The Harvest Quota Setting Process
The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries conducts a nest survey each year to determine alligator nest densities in various regions. Nest densities, which provide an index of alligator populations, are charted according to habitat type, latitude and longitude, and ownership.
Each year after the nest density estimate is obtained; an allowable take (quota) is calculated. Nest densities fluctuate depending on conditions, during droughts they can decline, or they can increase dramatically during prime nesting seasons. The State will then issue individually and sequentially numbered nylon lockable alligator harvest tags. These tags are designed to ensure that once properly applied any tampering with them will be apparent.
Each alligator taken by licensed harvesters must have such a tag fixed to it and the state keeps track of such details as the exact numbers of tags used, where the tags were used, what length of animal they were attached to and which of these animals had been released from ranches in prior years. The State monitors the release and use of tags to ensure the harvest in any one area does not exceed the quota.
3. Licensing Controls over Alligator Harvesters
Alligator hunters and farmers must obtain state licenses. Hunters are issued a license and a number of tags based on the property on which he has permission to hunt. Each property receives a tag allotment based on the habitat quality and quantity. Farmers must show compliance of minimum facilities during a required facility examination by Department personnel prior to issuance of the license.
4. Monitoring of the System
Farms are regularly inspected by state personnel to check housing and water conditions. The state looks specifically at or for sanitary conditions, temperature control, feeding, and spacing availability.
State personnel inspect and track the size and number of hides from alligator harvests. A data-base is kept with such information as who hunted or farmed and who shipped which hides to various tanneries.
Egg collections are equally monitored. A three party contract is made between the landowner, the rancher collecting eggs and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The State determines how many eggs are available for collection on a certain piece of property. The rancher must report to the State how many eggs were collected and how many hatched. The farmer then has two years to return 12% of those healthy alligators at 4 foot length. The State monitors the returns to ensure healthy alligators are released.
5. Environmental Impacts of Utilizing Alligators
The economic incentive gained by landowners, hunters, trappers, ranchers and the community at large ensures a positive environmental impact through alligator utilization. Poaching is virtually non-existent today. People protect what has value to them and the alligator is fiercely protected in Louisiana today. Since the alligator is valued, its habitat, the wetlands, is also valued. Landowners spend money to protect their property from saltwater encroaching on the coast. Louisiana is losing coastal wetlands at an alarming rate due to many climatic factors. There is incentive to slow and reverse this process to protect the renewable resources in the marshes. By protecting the marshes, many other species of birds, fish, mammals, etc. are also spared.
Louisiana alligator management program has been operating under strict and intensive supervision for over 30 years. Wise utilization of our alligator resources have led to a viable industry with a stable and rising wild population. Intensive use and scientific effort have answered the questions of potential impact and enabled industry to defend itself based on demonstrated science.
6. Animal Welfare
Conditions on the farms are closely monitored by the State of Louisiana to ensure humane housing and treatment. Regulations are in place guiding the wild hunts as well. For example alligator lines must be checked daily and pole hunting is prohibited.
7. Alligator Resource Fund
In recognizing that the Louisiana alligator industry is a vital aspect of Louisiana’s economy and recognizing the many, varied national and international impediments to industry development, and the need to develop and maintain a total alligator conservation program, the Louisiana legislature established the Louisiana Alligator Resource Fund in 1991. This Act established a dedicated source of revenue intended to help defray the costs of the alligator program within the Coastal and Nongame Resources Division of the Department. All fees related to the alligator industry (hide tag fees, shipping label fees, severance tax on alligator skins and alligator hunting license fees), are deposited into the Alligator Resource Fund. All aspects of the alligator management program, including biologists, staff, alligator disease research, education, promotion, and representation at CITES are funded by the Alligator Resource Fund. The alligator industry should be applauded for supporting these legislative endeavors to create a self-generated source of revenue to develop and maintain the state’s alligator management program.
8. Alligator Advisory Council
The Alligator Advisory Council is comprised of three alligator farmers, three coastal landowner representatives and three alligator hunters. This Council works within the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to promote sustainable use of the alligator resource and to ensure wise species and habitat management. The Council, through IACTS, monitors trade of all crocodilian species world-wide. A Council representative attends CITES meetings and works closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to regulate and document trade, so that it remains legal, sustainable and verifiable.
One of the Council’s primary goals is to educate the public about species and habitat management. The Council has developed educational materials based on the Louisiana Department of Education’s grade level expectations (GLEs). These resources are provided to public teachers free of charge. Council members and educators regularly visit schools. An education contractor presents at teacher workshops, summer library programs and state-wide community fairs and festivals.
The alligator industry is a model of wise environmental management and this conclusion is supported by the analysis of extensive scientific data and the support of a wide range of professional scientific bodies. Further the industry believes that utilizing this renewable natural resource to maintain Louisiana’s cultural heritage is an endeavor filled with wisdom.
Wildlife and Fisheries along with biologists, hunters, and trappers work to maintain a balance in nature. Species, which are underpopulated, are protected. Species, which are overpopulated, are carefully and humanely controlled.
Nature's way of controlling species is often cruel and includes slow starvation and diseases, such as red mange, distemper, and rabies.
- Failing to control overpopulation causes damage to land and property.
- Beavers cause about $400 million in damages every year in the U.S by flooding roads and bridges, ruining timber, and spoiling crops.
- One river otter in a crawfish farm causes $300 worth of damage per week.
Control through hunting and trapping:
- As opposed to disease and starvation, hunting and trapping are quick and humane.
- Allowing hunting and trapping in an overpopulated area can decrease the frequency and severity of diseases, such as red mange, distemper, and rabies.
- Hunting and trapping allows the total use of the animal. Pelts are used for clothing, the meat is used for human and animal consumption, and other parts are used for scientific research. For example, the alligator embryo is used in cleft palate research.
- The economic incentive to the hunter and trapper encourages them to actively protect the natural habitats. According the National Trappers' Association, for every tax dollar spent on conservation, sportsmen spend $12.