Gators get their move on in Texas
Mike Leggett, Commentary
Some guys killed a monster alligator along the Trinity River recently, and it’s got some folks’ britches twisted in knots.
One factor in the hysteria is the size of the alligator. It was just north of 13 feet long and weighed just about 880 pounds.
Another factor is location. Recent alligator incidents in the Austin metro area, coupled with the perception that this monster was taken in the Dallas area has worried some urban residents. But the Trinity gator wasn’t found in an urban area. It was killed along the Trinity River in Leon County, east of Waco, about half way between Dallas and Houston.
The quick truth is that Texas has large swaths of habitat that can support alligator populations, geography that allows them to move around and remote areas where they can grow to large sizes.
“Draw a line down I-35, from the Oklahoma border to the Rio Grande. Any county east of that line can have alligators,” says Amos Cooper, Texas Parks and Wildlife’s alligator program leader.
There are between 250,000 and half a million alligators living in Texas today. A strong census is difficult because of where they live. Thick, wooded river bottoms and dark waters make it difficult to get accurate counts from the air, says Cooper.
“We really only have a handle on about four or five counties (along the coast),” Cooper says. “The canopy is so thick in other places we just can’t count them. You get the best counts in places with higher concentrations,” which means coastal marshes with little tall cover.
Alligators were once considered common from the 100th meridian in Central Texas, eastward through the south and, historically, north into New Jersey. North Carolina seems to be the northern boundary today, although some alligators have moved from Texas into Oklahoma and southwest Arkansas.
Once threatened by market hunting and habitat loss, alligators have rebounded in Texas where they have been protected since 1969.
Texas Parks and Wildlife began to allow some limited hunting for surplus gators in 1984, and the animals were declared fully recovered in 1984. That’s amazing, when you consider that only about one in 20 alligator hatchlings reach adulthood.
TPWD maintains a fairly liberal hunting quota each year but still keeps a close watch over alligator numbers and movement.
It’s that alligator movement that’s of some concern these days. Driven by persistent hot, dry weather and a strong survival instinct, gators are moving around, searching for habitat that will sustain them.
“I’ve seen alligators myself in Onion Creek,” Cooper says. “With the drought, they feel that water (going down), and they’re going to move.”
I’ve seen alligators in dusty South Texas pastures, trudging from a water hole that won’t support them toward a wetland that only they can see.
“Early in the year, the 4-to-5 footers, those are the ones that are moving,” Cooper says. “They live on the fringe of the habitat anyway, but when the big males come in to mate, they have to move or get eaten. That’s when you wind up with them in your swimming pool or backyard.”
The reptiles simply follow the water course they’re in at the moment, and they can go in almost any direction.
Most are not the size of the Trinity River giant, says Steve Barclay, one of the Gar Guys guides who orchestrated the hunt.
“That’s about the top end,” Cooper says, but the size isn’t unprecedented. Alligators grow throughout the 30-40 years they can live in the wild, and they can attain some prodigious sizes.
“We had a spring hunt on the wildlife management area at Choke Canyon this spring,” Cooper says. “We had a 13-3 and a 13-8 on that hunt.” Each of those animals weighed more than 650 pounds. “A four-footer will weigh about 15 pounds,” he says.
Cooper has one piece of advice for anyone who happens to encounter an alligator on their property or in a lake where they live. “Don’t feed it. That’s when you start to have problems.”
If game wardens or biologists are called out, they’re going to kill the alligator. “We don’t relocate,” Cooper says. “We just can’t do that.”
Texas has not had a fatality from an alligator attack, though it has happened in Florida.
“We’ve been lucky,” Cooper says.