Committee of the Islands

Keeping Sanibel Special Since 1975

Is it time to reevaluate our alligator policy?

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December 10, 2010

Published in the Island Sun and Island Reporter on 12 - 10 - 10 Is it time to reevaluate our alligator policy ? By Barbara Joy Cooley , President , Committee of the Islands At the Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ , Pastor John Danner puts on puppet shows for the children . One of the star characters is Chompers , a crocodile who talks , attends church , and could go to Sanibel City Hall if he wanted to . In the real world , however , the alligators of Sanibel cannot go to City Hall and speak up . So on this sanctuary island , maybe it''s time for the rest of us to do so , and ask if we should reevaluate our alligator policy . In 2004 , responding to two fatal alligator attacks , the City of Sanibel changed its policy for dealing with alligators . Prior to that time , the policy was relatively lenient , but the attacks and the growing population of these crocodilians - - indeed , maybe an overpopulation - - led to a more aggressive policy . Here is how that policy works in practice : - - A resident or visitor calls the police to complain about a nuisance alligator . - - The police call in a state - certified alligator trapper . - - The trapper can then destroy ( they''re killed , not “ removed ” ) the nuisance alligator . In addition , if the police chief or his designated representative elects to do so , he can also authorize the trapper to destroy every other alligator in the area that exceeds four feet in length . The first two and a half steps of the current program deal strictly with the nuisance alligator that the citizen called to complain about , which is what many if not most people might expect . The next half step , killing every 4 - foot - plus alligator in the area , may not be what we expect . Since the alligators don''t breed until they''re six feet long , we could be on our way to eliminating these reptiles from our sanctuary island . Two Key Questions So these questions come up : Are we indeed on our way to eliminating alligators from Sanibel ? And if so , is that what we want ? We don''t pretend to have the answer to the first question , but there are some signs - - both anecdotal and statistical - - that it could be “ yes . ” So it may be well to take a second look at these early indicators and then seek more definitive information . First the numbers : The City reports that 32 alligators were destroyed in 2009 and 16 more through September of this year . Overall , 297 Sanibel alligators have been destroyed since the new policy was initiated in 2004 . That''s an average of almost one a week over the six - year span . Is that too much ? Does it mean we may be losing alligator population ? I was first drawn to this question when I realized that I wasn''t seeing as many alligators as I used to see near my home in Gulf Pines , along the West Sanibel River Preserve . I began asking others who live in alligator - prone territories on Sanibel . Almost all of them say the same thing : We don''t see as many alligators , and the ones we do see tend to be quite small . So the anecdotal information seemed to square with the numbers showing almost 300 alligators killed in the six years since the new policy was implemented . And the defining feature of that policy is this : When the City of Sanibel changed its nuisance alligator policy to closely mirror the state''s policy , it obtained a nuisance alligator permit allowing the city to handle the complaints via the police department instead of having citizens call the state hotline for nuisance alligators ; but in addition to the nuisance alligator permit , the City also requested and obtained an “ open harvest area designation , ” which has now been renamed a “ targeted harvest area . ” It is the harvest area designation that means trappers can go beyond the original nuisance alligator and also destroy any other alligators they find that are over 4 feet long . And , as we mentioned above , alligators do not breed until they reach about 6 feet in length . So , over time , if enough alligators over 4 feet long are destroyed , it is theoretically possible that alligators could disappear from this sanctuary island . It is that same harvest area designation that makes the Sanibel nuisance alligator program one of the more aggressive in the state . Only the City of Sanibel can request this harvest area designation for itself , and only the City of Sanibel can remove the designation , according to Lindsey Hord , the coordinator of the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program . Needed : More Information Since 2006 , the staff at J . N . Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel have been conducting regular alligator counts in the Refuge . Although their count is conducted on refuge properties , it is important to keep in mind that alligators in the Refuge often move around on the island , coming into neighborhoods such as mine in Gulf Pines and Gulf Shores . The data from the Refuge’s counts does cause some alarm . In 2006 , the count was 45 ; it dropped every year until reaching only 20 in 2010 . Author and historian Charles LeBuff recently made an excellent presentation at the Sanibel Community House as part of the Celebrate Sanibel program . During the question - and - answer session after his presentation , he described the City''s post - 2004 program on nuisance alligators , and he said perhaps it is now time for the City to reevaluate that program . I''m not an alligator expert , but I think it is time for the experts to take a look at our harvest area designation to see if it is really needed . More study and examination of the data is needed . Fortunately , the experts may agree . Paul Tritaik , the Refuge manager , recently said that perhaps “ this is something our biological committee could discuss . ” The biological committee he refers to is made up of biologists from places like the City of Sanibel and the Refuge . Perhaps simply responding to nuisance alligator complaints is enough ; the harvesting of the other alligators over 4 feet in an area may be , well , overkill . And if it is , we need as a community to answer the other question I posed earlier : Do we want an island without alligators - - not only one on which these creatures are no longer a part of our wildlife experience , but also one on which the natural balance has been dramatically altered ? If so , would we then see an imbalance in the food chain and a population explosion of raccoons , snakes , and others that are the natural prey of alligators ? Would such an increase in numbers of raccoons and snakes harm the bird population ? So there are practical matters to consider in addition to the diminution of our wildlife experience . What Do You Think ? The Committee of the Islands would like to hear what you think about the City''s policy of dealing with alligator control under a “ targeted harvest area ” designation . Of course , we must have a nuisance alligator program since the public safety absolutely requires one . But is it time for us to investigate whether the harvest area designation should be either modified or discontinued ? We are , after all , one of only a few municipalities in Florida to have such a designation . How does that fit with our vision of Sanibel as a sanctuary island , one on which the public safety must come first , but in a way that enables us to enjoy the unmatched natural diversity and abundance that surrounds us ? Email your thoughts to : coti @ .

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