Florida officials estimate that more than a million alligators roam the state's waterways (related news: "Controlled Alligator Harvest an Effective Conservation Tool, Louisiana Says" [October 22, 2001]).
But crocodile populations had been decimated in the 20th century by unchecked urban and agricultural land development combined with overhunting.
The species was first listed as endangered in 1975. A survey the following year estimated that only 200 to 300 animals remained in Florida.
"People were very worried. There were only about 20 nests and they were not very successful," said Frank Mazzotti, a crocodile researcher at the University of Florida.
"There was no evidence that any babies were surviving."
But an intensive five-year review conducted by federal experts confirms that crocodile numbers have rebounded dramatically and their geographic distribution has grown.
Today an estimated 1,400 to 2,000 crocs call Florida home—and that number does not include hatchlings.
This demonstrated population growth, along with reduced land development and hunting threats, prompted the reclassification.
Mazzotti attributes most of the comeback to habitat protection by federal, state, and local wildlife management agencies, as well as some corporate allies.
"A significant chunk of habitat is provided by Florida Power and Light Company at their Turkey Point plant," he said.
The nuclear plant's cooling canals, built on crocodile habitat, are now managed as a croc-friendly refuge.
In total, about 95 percent of southern Florida's prime crocodile breeding grounds is currently protected or preserved.
And while the animals' population boom in Florida is still dwarfed by the abundance of alligators, wildlife managers are more optimistic about the crocs's success.
"Back in the 1970s, when crocodiles were classified as endangered, no one thought they would ever recover this well," Woodward, the state conservation official, said.
"It has been a very pleasant surprise for everyone concerned."
Free Email News Updates
Best Online Newsletter, 2006 Codie Awards
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES