Historically, the American Alligator was common and abundant
throughout the southeastern United States. By 1960, however,
alligators had been completely eliminated from much of their former
range. The decline in alligator numbers led the U. S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, in 1967, to list the American Alligator as an
endangered species. Shortly after the 1967 listing, surveys began
to indicate that some alligator populations were more secure than
was previously thought, and in the early 1970's, alligators were
removed from the endangered species list in certain counties and
parishes of Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia and instead listed as
Threatened by Similarity of Appearance (TS/A). The TS/A designation
indicates that the American Alligator is a common and secure
species, but that they are similar in appearance to other
crocodilians that are very rare and endangered, such as the
American Crocodile (found in south Florida) and the Chinese
Alligator, which has only a few hundred individuals remaining.
Within a few years of receiving endangered species protection,
population surveys and increasing numbers of nuisance complaints
began to indicate that the alligator populations in Mississippi and
across the southeast were rapidly recovering. On June 4, 1987 the
status of the American Alligator was changed to TS/A across the
range. This led the Mississippi Legislature, later in 1987, to pass
legislation giving the Mississippi Commission on Wildlife
Conservation the authority to set regulations to manage alligators.
In 1989 the Commission enacted alligator regulations and the
Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP)
created the Alligator Management and Control Project. The primary
objectives of the alligator program are to monitor alligator
populations, to control nuisance alligators through the use of
alligator agent-trappers, and to educate the public on being safe
Monitoring Alligator Populations -
A common method of surveying alligator populations is to travel
along water routes in alligator habitat and count alligator
eyeballs, which shine brightly red. MDWFP has been running
night-light surveys of alligators along selected routes since 1972.
The surveys and the number of nuisance complaints have indicated a
steady increase in alligator numbers over the last 30 years. In
1998, we significantly increased the number of survey routes and
the frequency with which they were run so that we could develop
more proactive and biologically sound management strategies. In
2000, MDWFP conducted 317 miles of alligator surveys along 15
routes in 13 counties, even though several routes could not be run
in because of low water conditions. From the survey data and
satellite imagery to identify alligator habitat, we have developed
a fairly clear picture of the distribution of alligators and
alligator habitat in Mississippi.
We recently estimated that there are 32,000-38,000 alligators
and about 408,000 acres of alligator habitat in Mississippi.
Fourteen northern Mississippi counties have produced no alligator
records, but nuisance alligator complaints have come from as far
north as Coahoma, Lafayette, and Itawamba Counties. This year's
extremely low temperatures could reduce alligator numbers in the
Jackson County, with 57,000 acres, has far more alligator
habitat than any other county. We estimate that there are about
7500 alligators in Jackson County, or about 24% of all of the
alligators in the state. Other counties with high alligator
populations include Hancock, with about 3900 (12% of state total),
and Rankin, with about 2400 alligators (7.4% of state total).
Night-light surveys over the last three years indicate that Rankin
County has the highest alligator densities in the state, averaging
7.35 alligators per mile along survey routes, versus an average of
1.76 alligators per mile for the rest of the state. Most of the
Rankin County alligator population is located in and around Ross
Barnett Reservoir and in the Pearl River to Ratliff Ferry.
While counting alligators we also estimate their size. We have
discovered that the average size of Mississippi alligators is much
larger than alligators sizes reported from other states, such as
Florida or Louisiana, where alligators are hunted. Alligators are
particularly large in areas where few large nuisance alligators
need to be removed--22% of alligators counted along the Little
Sunflower River in Yazoo and Sharkey Counties were greater than 10
feet long, and in Steele Bayou in Issaquena and Washington
Counties, 20% of alligators are greater than 10 feet. However, in
areas where a great deal of residential and industrial development
intrudes into alligator habitat, many alligator/human conflicts
result in removal of large alligators and lower average sizes. For
example, in Harrison County between the Tchoutacabouffa and Little
Biloxi River only 4.7% of alligators are greater than 10 feet and
in Pelahatchie Bay (Ross Barnett Reservoir) only 4.9% of alligators
are greater than 10 feet. Large average sizes of alligators in
unhunted populations are largely attributable to the fact that
alligators are cannibalistic. One study found that each
predator-size alligator eats about 2.5 prey-size alligators per
Louisiana harvested about 30,000 alligators last year--a number
almost equivalent to the entire Mississippi alligator population.
Florida harvested almost as many. Currently harvests of alligators
in Mississippi are restricted to nuisance removal by licensed
agent-trappers. While the aforementioned population numbers may
seem like a lot of alligators, the number that could be harvested
yearly on a sustained-yield basis would actually be quite small.
The hunt would offer recreational opportunity to only a few
hunters, who would probably be chosen by lottery. For these reasons
and because a public hunt would be fairly expensive for the
Department to administer, it does not appear to be the best
alligator management strategy at this time, but we have not
completely ruled out the possibility of a limited hunting season at
some time in the future. We are, however, taking applications for
alligator agent-trappers in all areas of the state where alligators
are found except in the three coastal counties. Agent-trappers do
not necessarily have to have previous experience with alligators
but should have some experience trapping and handling wild animals.
They may not have had Class I wildlife violations or felonies.
Agent-trappers are contractors, not employees of MDWFP, and their
only compensation is the alligators they harvest.
What is a Nuisance Alligator? BE GATOR
Endangered species protection and other alligator recovery efforts
have been successful in allowing alligators to repopulate areas
from which they were previously extirpated. While old-timers may
remember that alligators used to be there, many people are
beginning to see alligators in places where they have never seen
them before, and because they have never seen them before,
sometimes they call MDWFP to report a "nuisance" alligator.
Sometimes when we respond to these calls we find an alligator but
not a "nuisance" alligator. So what is a nuisance alligator? If an
alligator is in a river, oxbow, swamp, or lake, particularly if
they are in public water simply doing what alligators do--that is
not a nuisance alligator. If you choose to live in alligator
habitat, then alligators are an amenity that often comes with the
property. Therefore, an alligator in your backyard is not
necessarily a nuisance alligator, if your backyard is a marsh.
Generally, a nuisance alligator is one that has shown aggressive
behavior, one that hangs around seeking handouts, or one that is in
a place it has absolutely no business being, such as a swimming
pool or garage or in the middle of the highway. We also will remove
unwanted alligators from private ponds used for aquaculture or
recreation. An alligator that has eaten pets or livestock is
generally considered to be a nuisance gator. Usually an MDWFP
Conservation Officer confirms that a gator is a nuisance and
dispatches an agent-trapper.
If an alligator is less than eight feet in length, it poses
almost no danger to humans unless it is fed or harassed. Even
larger alligators are less dangerous to humans than is generally
thought if a few safety rules are followed. First and foremost:
Never, ever feed an alligator! Feeding alligators causes them to
associate people with food and to lose their natural wariness of
humans. Not only is feeding alligators dangerous, it is illegal.
And don't think you are not doing the alligator a favor by feeding
it--usually an alligator that has been fed will begin seeking out
people and has trouble differentiating hands from handouts. That
alligator has become a nuisance and will probably have to be
removed--generally "a fed gator is a dead gator."
Observe alligators but never approach or harass them. Alligator
nests are usually found deep in the marsh or swamp but if you do
come upon a nest, get away from it. Female alligators, which are
usually much less aggressive than males can be quite dangerous when
defending their nests.
Watch your pets. While alligators don't generally see people as
food, they are quite fond of dogs. Eating dogs is a fairly natural
thing for an alligator to do. We usually treat an alligator that
has eaten a pet as a nuisance gator, but that is probably not quite
fair to the gator.
Alligators are a natural and important component of aquatic
ecosystems in Mississippi, and if you live in or visit these areas
you will probably see them. Observe and enjoy, but always follow
the alligator safety rules.