Controlled Alligator Harvest an Effective Conservation Tool, Louisiana Says

By Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic
October 22, 2001

You wander through a store or flip through magazine pages and see a gorgeous alligator bag, pair of shoes, or belt. Being the good environmentalist that you are, you don't buy, because alligators are an endangered species. Aren't they?

"No," Ruth Elsey, a wildlife biologist at the state-administered Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, said emphatically. "That's the biggest misconception people have, and one that we're constantly battling. Alligators are not endangered.

"There's a bumper sticker down here that says, 'If you want to save an alligator, buy a handbag,' and that's completely true," said Elsey. "We wish we could get people to understand that."

Louisiana's innovative Alligator Marsh to Market program is an effective conservation tool, state conservation officers say. It protects alligator populations and preserves critical wetlands habitats while providing about U.S. $54 million of economic benefits to the state each year.

Wetlands provide many important environmental benefits, such as storm buffer protection, home to migratory bird species, and aquifer recharging. Given these benefits, there is much concern about preserving wetlands.

Yet in Louisiana, most wetlands are privately owned, and the environmental benefits they provide generally don't give the landowners the financial incentives needed to encourage wetlands preservation.

Traditionally, the owners of wetlands have made money by leasing hunting rights to duck and deer hunters, fishermen, and camping or swamp-tour ventures. Activities such as these are not big money makers, however, which puts wetlands in jeopardy of being converted to other land uses.

The Alligator Marsh to Market program gives landowners an incentive to keep their marshlands wet and natural, rather than draining the land for crops, cattle grazing, or development.

"There are around 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares) of coastal wetlands in Louisiana that qualify as alligator habitat," said Noel Kinler, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Nearly 75 percent of that habitat is owned by private landowners, and with a few small exceptions, virtually every piece of land that qualifies is enrolled in the (alligator) program."

The Alligator Marsh to Market program, Kinler said, "is absolutely essential to maintaining critical habitat in the state."

Controlled Harvesting

The Marsh to Market concept was born in 1972. Previously, alligator hunting in Louisiana was virtually unregulated. As a result, alligator numbers declined so much that hunting was banned in 1963.

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