Reality TV lures out-of-state gator hunters to Louisiana

The 30-day season opened in eastern Louisiana last week and on Wednesday in western sections of the state.

At Grosse Savanne Waterfowl & Wildlife Lodge in western Louisiana, wildfowl hunts have been fully booked since 2006 but alligator hunts took longer to fill up, said manager Karl Zimmerman.

“We didn’t get fully booked up until the Swamp People program came out on the History Channel,” said Zimmerman, 35, who began riding along on alligator hunts with his father when he was 6 or 7.

While he appreciates the way the televised Cajun gator hunts have boosted business, he can’t stand to watch them.

“Ninety percent of it is Hollywood,” he said. “They really make it out to be the savage beast — it’s going to come get you every time you get up close to ‘em. That’s really not the way it is. Especially in the wild.”

State wildlife officials describe the annual take as a harvest rather than a hunt. That’s accurate, Zimmerman said.

“If you go out to hunt ‘em in the broad daylight, you never can get close enough to get a good kill shot with a gator,” he said. That’s why they’re taken on big baited hooks left out overnight and hauled to the surface to be shot, Zimmerman said.

About 34,000 alligators will be taken this year in Louisiana, wildlife officials say.

This year’s tally of out-of-state hunters paying $150 for a gator hunting license is likely to beat last year’s record 507, said Noel Kinler, head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ alligator program. The number had averaged 144 for three years, then rose to 178 in 2010 and 332 in 2011.

State wildlife agents also say that rising numbers of locals are poaching the big reptiles during the 11 months that hunting is forbidden.

The number of arrests for killing alligators out of season rose from 33 in 2007 to 69 in 2011, 85 last year and 54 so far this year, said Adam Einck, spokesman for the department’s enforcement division.

Some of those people have told wildlife agents they were just doing what they’d seen on TV, said enforcement division Maj. Sammy Martin. “They’re thinking that pretty much you can go out and hunt alligators whenever you want, without realizing what the rules and the laws and regulations are in the actual taking of the alligators,” he said.

Zimmerman is among about 3,000 in-state hunters who have ponied up $25 for a license and either own wetlands where gators live or have a hunting lease from the owner.

Indiscriminate hunting had left so few alligators by 1941 that Alabama passed a law protecting them. Louisiana and Florida banned alligator hunting in 1962. The species went on the nation’s first endangered species list in 1967. By 1972, numbers in Louisiana were high enough to allow hunting, which has been tightly regulated ever since.

Louisiana’s wild population is now approaching an estimated 2 million, with more than 300,000 more on farms, according to Wildlife and Fisheries.

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