Hunters in Mississippi just caught an 800 pound alligator, the largest ever recorded in the state. This has drawn attention to the state’s alligator hunting program, which may provide more benefits for the reptiles than you might think.
These US programs help control the wild populations of alligators, which have been increasing since they were listed as endangered in 1967, and the sales of the hunting licenses fund local wildlife protection, Tate Watkins, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, told Insider. That feeds back into protecting alligators natural habitats.
“Regulated, sustainable hunting plays a huge role in wildlife conservation,” he said.
Alligator hunting licenses come with strict stipulations about where a person can hunt, during what weeks of the season, and what size gator they’re allowed to catch. This allows officials to keep tabs on the population changes in various habitats throughout the state.
Because of this system, state officials were able to track the 776 alligators that were harvested in Mississippi in 2021. Also, the licenses that hunters purchased to hunt those gators generated about $293,700 in revenue for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks.
According to the department’s website, those dollars get placed into a Wildlife Endowment Fund, which pays for the management, enforcement, research, and education of the local wildlife. Watkins said the bulk of state agency’s funding comes from these licenses.
A balancing act
There is a delicate balance between the health of a habitat and the number of animals in it. A famous example of this tension played out in Yellowstone National Park when wolves were hunted to extinction. This allowed other species, that would normally be controlled by the wolves, like elk, to balloon in size.
The elk overgrazed the park’s Aspen and Willow trees, and the ecosystem began to change. But scientists pushed for wolves to be reintroduced in 1995 things began to balance out. Though the effects of the reintroduction are still playing out, scientists have said bringing back the wolves benefited raven, eagle, beetle, wolverine, magpie, coyote, and bear populations, according to Yellowstone Park.
In the case of gators that have experienced population fluctuations over recent decades, Watkins explained, officials take this into consideration. They play an important role in their ecosystem, creating habitat for fish with the holes they dig, and managing populations of prey animals, biologists Mike Heithaus and Maureen Donnelly told Phys.org.
Keeping good public relations
Another factor that plays into controlling gator populations is the fact that the more gators there are, the more likely they are to spill out of their natural habitats and come into contact with humans, Watkins said. There is no shortage of news stories about alligators harming humans, squaring off with pets, and generally being a nuisance.
It’s best for both the alligators and humans to keep their populations separate, at least from a public relations standpoint, Watkins said. People don’t tend to take too kindly to being confronted by the dinosaurs.
In Watkins’ experience, he has observed that hunters keep these ideas in mind as they apply for licenses. He said that it may seem counterintuitive, but many of the people who are out there hunting have a deep respect and care for the animals they are seeking.
Amongst those hunters, he’s observed a universal, “ethos, of essentially wanting to contribute to that kind of larger conservation effort.”
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