LDWF manages the American alligator as a commercial, renewable natural resource. Through LDWF’s extensive research and wise management that includes sustainable wild harvest and alligator farming, Louisiana’s wild alligator population has increased from less than 100,000 to more than 2 million in the past 50 years. There are also nearly 1 million alligators on farms in Louisiana. LDWF also ensures compliance with international alligator trade requirements and manages Louisiana’s nuisance alligators. LDWF’s alligator management program is recognized internationally as a wildlife conservation success story and a model for sustainable use; the principles of this program have been applied to managing crocodilian species worldwide.
Since the inception of LDWF’s alligator management program in 1972, more than 1.1 million wild alligators have been harvested, more than 11 million alligator eggs have been collected, and roughly 7.3 million farm-raised alligators have been sold. Consumptive (meats and hides) and non-consumptive (wildlife watching) use of the alligator resource in Louisiana brings hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to the state each year.
Wild Alligator Harvest
Alligator hunting has a very long history in Louisiana—people have been harvesting alligators commercially for their valuable leather since the 1800s. Harvest was generally unregulated throughout the 1900s, until a gradual population decline resulted in severely reduced harvests in the early 1950s. From 1962 to 1972, the alligator season in Louisiana was closed to allow the population to stabilize; alligator populations quickly increased over this decade.
In the meantime, during the 1960s and 1970s, research focusing on basic life history of the species such as habitat and nesting requirements was conducted and formed the basis of LDWF’s wild alligator management program. Researchers realized that to restore the alligator population, its wetland habitat must be saved. Since more than 80% of the coastal wetland habitat in Louisiana is privately owned, LDWF developed a controlled wild harvest program to provide an economic incentive for landowners to maintain or enhance important wetland habitat and protect alligators. The goals of LDWF’s alligator management program are to manage and conserve Louisiana’s alligators as part of the state’s wetland ecosystem and provide benefits to the species, its habitat, and the other species of fish and wildlife associated with alligators. First implemented in 1972 on an experimental basis in Cameron Parish, this program expanded from the southwestern parishes to the entire state by 1981. Currently, nearly 2,900 licensed alligator hunters participate in the annual harvest. During the history of the program, the annual harvest has averaged around 24,000 alligators with a high of 36,301 alligators harvested in 2014.
Wild Alligator Harvest Historical Timeline
- 1800: Earliest recorded use of alligator leather; thousands of hides are used for boots, shoes, saddles, etc.
- 1855: Sporadic demand for alligator hides; first as a novelty leather and during Civil War to supply the Confederate Army with shoe/boot leather
- Late 1860s: Alligator leather is considered most fashionable of all leathers available at the time
- 1880-1933: Approximately 3.5 million Louisiana alligator hides are harvested
- 1939-60: Commercial harvest averages 18,005 per year
- 1962-72: Louisiana’s alligator season is closed statewide; officials turn attention to research and management of the resource; federal and state laws governing alligators are enacted (listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in1967)
- 1970: Louisiana Legislature enacts Act 550 giving LDWF full authority to regulate the alligator
- 1970-72: Framework for implementation of a sustainable use program developed
- 1972: Experimental hunt in Cameron Parish yields 1,350 alligators by 59 hunters, valued at $8.10 per foot and totaling $75,505
- 1975-77: Experimental hunting expanded to three coastal parishes (Cameron, Vermilion, and Calcasieu)
- 1978: No season—limited market in United States and ban on overseas shipments due to Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
- 1979-80: Harvest expanded to 12 coastal parishes
- 1981: Alligator reclassified under the Endangered Species Act to threatened; harvest expanded to entire state
- 1990: Hide prices reach high value, averaging $57 per foot
- 1997: Coastal nest density projections highest on record since 1970 (this record was subsequently exceeded in every year from 2016 to 2020, with a record of 67,935 nests estimated in 2019)
- 1999: Bonus tag program implemented; suspended in 2009 due to poor voluntary compliance with size limitations
- 1999-2006: Wild alligator harvest averages some 33,000 animals annually
- 2005: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alter nesting habitat
- 2006: Worst drought in 111 years of recorded weather history adversely affects nesting
- 2007-08: Two excellent nesting years lead to record egg production and wild harvest quotas; continued excellent nesting starting in 2012 led to high egg collections for several subsequent years
- 2008: Hurricanes Gustav and Ike further alter nesting habitat
- 2009: Worldwide economic crisis adversely affects alligator harvests
- 2017: Wild harvest drops from the usual 35,000 alligators harvested annually to 15,103 due to low demand and poor hide prices, gradual increase to 20,168 in 2018 and 23,828 in 2019
- 2019: Record coastal nest estimate of 67,935
- 2020: Worldwide coronavirus pandemic and economic factors adversely affect hunter participation; wild harvest season extended to 60 days to allow for additional participation; Hurricanes Laura and Delta make landfall in Cameron Parish, impacting habitat
Preparing for the Wild Alligator Season
LDWF biologists and managers begin preparing for the annual wild alligator season every June. Biologists conduct aerial nest surveys, surveying 135,000 acres of coastal wetland habitat. They use the data they collect to calculate nest densities, which provide an index of alligator populations, for individual management areas throughout the state. They also collect data on habitat conditions. Nest densities fluctuate depending on these conditions—they can decline during a drought or increase during prime nesting seasons with optimum water levels.
Managers review average nest densities, habitat assessments, and past harvest statistics and tag allotments and use this information to set the upcoming season’s allowable take (quota) and allot a certain number of harvest tags to each management area (to control the number of alligators that may be harvested from each area). It is critical to equitably distribute the harvest in relation to an area’s population level.
Before the wild alligator season starts, licensed alligator hunters are issued a certain number of tags based on the property on which they have permission to hunt. These tags are property specific and must be used on the property indicated on the hunter’s license as each property has a tag allotment based on the quality and quantity of the habitat on the property and its ability to sustain alligator harvest. Alligator hunters must have these tags to harvest alligators and attach them to alligators immediately upon harvest. The tags are designed to ensure that once properly applied any tampering with them will be apparent. LDWF monitors the release and use of tags to ensure the harvest in any one area does not exceed the quota. Staff keep tabs on information such as the number of tags used, where the tags were used, the length of tagged alligators, and if alligators had been released from farms in prior years. Once harvested and tagged, alligators are transported to licensed facilities which process alligators for their meat, hides, and other commercially valuable parts.
Louisiana’s wild alligator season usually begins in late August/early September and continues for 60 days. Breeding females are typically hidden away with their nests at this time so males and non-breeding females are primarily hunted.
As research showed alligators could be grown successfully under artificial conditions on farms, LDWF began an alligator ranching program in 1986 to supplement the growing wild population. Licensed alligator farmers are allowed to collect alligator eggs on private lands and incubate and hatch those eggs under ideal growing conditions including adequate food supply and proper air and water temperatures. They then transfer those hatchlings to secure facilities and raise them until they reach approximately 3 to 5 feet in length. Primarily due to predators, less than 15% of wild alligators ever reach this size, but those that do have an excellent chance to survive to adult size. To ensure a stable, growing wild population, alligator farmers are required to return approximately 10% (depending on size) of their 3 to 5-foot alligators to the wild. This size alligator has a better chance of survival in the wild than a hatchling and farm-raised alligators are consistently produced every year (in the wild, successful reproduction is subject to factors such as predators, flooding, etc.).
Farm-raised alligators are measured, sexed, tail-notched, tagged, and recorded before they are returned to the wild. This allows biologists to later identify them and conduct follow-up research on their growth, survival, and dispersal rates. For example, research has shown that farmed alligators returned to the wild eat larger prey earlier than wild alligators and continue to grow faster than wild alligators. LDWF managers use data gathered from these alligators to adjust regulations when necessary.
Alligator farmers may sell the remaining alligators (those not released into the wild). In 2019, Louisiana alligator farmers harvested 438,577 farm-raised alligators with an estimated value of $86 million.
LDWF closely monitors alligator farm operations. Staff inspect alligator farms to ensure compliance with requirements for sanitary conditions, temperature control, feeding, and spacing availability prior to approving facilities for licensing. Staff monitor egg collection and ranching, determining the amount of eggs available for collection on a specific property, how many eggs were collected, and how many were hatched. They also monitor how many were returned to the wild, traveling to each farm and measuring, marking, and identifying the sex of every alligator before release. Staff also inspect and track the size and number of hides from alligator harvests, maintaining a database of who hunted or farmed each alligator and where each hide was shipped.
Commercial Alligator Trade
Export of alligator hides and products out of the United States is regulated through the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty which aims to ensure that international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. While the American alligator is no longer endangered or threatened anywhere in the United States, it is listed on Appendix II of CITES due to its similarity of appearance to other crocodilian species which are endangered or threatened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) implements CITES requirements; every year, LDWF must provide the USFWS a "finding of no detriment" stating that Louisiana's harvest and export of alligators are not detrimental to the survival of the species. In addition, each harvested alligator must have a CITES tag; information such as landowner, hunter or farmer, length, and shipper are recorded for every alligator harvested.
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