- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

ON LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (AP) — To the unaided eye, the swamp seems to sleep at night. But hit it with a spotlight and alligators suddenly appear everywhere, their bulbous red eyes glowing on the water’s black surface.

The biologists begin to count. In three hours, from just a pair of airboats, they find 754 gators in one small section of Lake Okeechobee, one of Florida’s most concentrated gator habitats.

The data become part of the state’s annual alligator count, used to set the number of hunting permits issued in coming years. More hunters are expected this season after three separate fatal attacks earlier this month.

Even with rampant development and loss of wetlands, officials estimate that more than 1 million alligators roam Florida — an incredible comeback for a species that was approaching extinction 40 years ago. State officials and environmentalists attribute the population growth to strict federal regulations on sales of such alligator products as skin and meat, along with tight limits on hunting and trapping.

On this balmy May evening, as the setting sun tinted the wispy clouds a fiery orange-red, biologist Lindsey Hord dipped what looked like a meat thermometer into the water.

Eighty-four degrees. Perfect. The warmer the water, the more the gators surface.

Mr. Hord, who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, used a Global Positioning System device to track his location as he zipped around the lake in near blackness, aiming his spotlight and counting eyes. Alligators are easier to find in the dark when a single spotlight can illuminate dozens, even some hidden in sawgrass.

Each year, scientists set out into about 50 locations statewide for the monthlong population assessment, recording alligator size and estimating age.

In 1967, after years of overhunting and habitat loss, the American alligator was listed as an endangered species, but conservation efforts and hunting regulations led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pronounce it fully recovered 20 years later. Florida lists it as a species of special concern, giving the state authority over management and control programs.

Now, even with hunting, numbers are increasing in some areas and remaining stable in others, state alligator researcher Allan Woodward said. “Our [hunters] are targeting the real big alligators, 9 feet or larger, so we’re actually reducing the population of those, and the smaller ones seem to be doing a lot better,” he said.

Environmentalists agree that the alligator is thriving.

“With the right biological input, you can harvest a number of alligators on an annual basis, as long as you don’t reopen a Wild West atmosphere in terms of the trade of alligator products,” said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida.

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