SLIDELL, La. — Louisiana saw its first fatal alligator attack last month when a 500-pound reptile pulled a 71-year-old man under the swirling floodwaters of Hurricane Ida here, according to state officials.
Timothy Satterlee was pulled under by a huge alligator Aug. 30 in the Avery Estates neighborhood near Fritchie Marsh, which is part of the federal Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF).
When Satterlee waded into the floodwaters to check on some belongings, his wife saw him taken by a 12-foot alligator and pulled into a “death roll,” which the reptiles use to drown their prey.
Hunters eventually trapped the alligator, and authorities have confirmed human remains were found inside.
Long removed from the endangered species list, the alligator now is flourishing.
The fatal attack came after Ida disrupted the world’s biggest population of American alligators in Louisiana, and in the midst of the state’s annual “controlled wild harvest” in which some 35,000 gators are legally trapped.
There are more than 2 million gators in the Bayou State, according to DWF figures obtained by an annual summer helicopter survey of nesting grounds in coastal Louisiana.
Some participants in the private alligator market put the figure even higher, closer to 3 million.
“There’s a public perception that this is a problem, but that is a misconception,” said Jeb Linscombe, Louisiana’s alligator program manager. “They’re not overpopulated. They’re recovered.”
The gator attack on Satterlee was the first reported in Slidell since 2008, when a 12-foot monster dubbed “Big Joe” took the arm of 12-year-old Devin Funck in Crystal Lake, not far from the Satterlees’ Avery Estates home.
Satterlee’s death marks only the second alligator fatality recorded in the U.S. this year and the 23rd this century. Seventeen deadly attacks occurred in Florida.
Mr. Linscombe and others said that any alligator that has become so large and familiar in a neighborhood that it’s been named, like Big Joe, should probably be removed.
He conceded that Louisiana officials could probably expand the 50 nuisance hunter licenses its parcels out each year.
The wild harvest underway now would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. By the late 1970s, the American alligator was endangered.
In 1979 it was illegal to hunt gators, although pilot programs were launched in some Louisiana parishes the following year.
Mr. Linscombe said the goal was to make the alligator valuable so that its habitat would be preserved, especially because 80% of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are privately owned.
“It was odd in that the state made it so you would actually kill an animal that needed to be protected,” said John Price, owner of the Insta-Gator Ranch in Abita Springs who participated in the pilot hunting programs as a youth in Lafourche Parish.
In 1986, the state began a program that allowed alligator eggs to be collected and sold, and in 1990, the nonprofit Louisiana Alligator Farmers and Ranchers Association (LAFRA) was launched, with a requirement that 17% of hatched gators that have reached 4-feet be released into the wild.
Like all crocodilians, alligators are “highly cannibalistic,” and the rate of wild hatchling survival is very low, Mr. Linscombe said.
Louisiana is the only state to have such an organized farming group, and it has proved so successful that over the years the percentage of alligators that must be returned to the wild has fallen to 10% in 2018, according to Mr. Price.
“The plan worked phenomenally well,” he said.
Indeed, the alligator population exploded in Louisiana, going from an estimated 100,000 to 1.5 million and now to 2 or 3 million, depending on the source.
Because alligator skin so closely resembles a crocodile, which remains endangered, the reptile remains covered by an appendix of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Every trapped gator is tagged, and the state allocates the number of tags based on calculations of population density per acre of hunted land.
The luxury market for alligator skin remains, with watchbands the most popular item. Farmed gator skin tends to fetch a higher price than wild.
The DWF puts the annual economic value of alligators in the state at $80 million, and it fights to keep it. In 2019, California banned alligator and crocodile skin products, but a federal judge appointed by President Barack Obama voided the law last year in a lawsuit filed by the DWF and LAFRA.
Fatal attacks like the recent one in Slidell tilt public perception from alligators’ economic and environmental benefits, according to the reptiles’ backers.
For example, in the 1990s, an explosion in the population of nutria threatened to eat away the roots that sustain and protect Louisiana’s wetlands, but the resurgent alligators have chomped away at the rodents and lessened the nutria damage.
“I think when you are losing a person, it is pretty easy to question if there are too many gators,” Mr. Price said. “But even if you extend the season or have more tags, they probably aren’t going to harvest that gator in Slidell. The best way to solve the problem would be to have more nuisance hunters.”
The 50 nuisance hunters currently licensed in Louisiana are called out more than a thousand times a year and take away between 600 and 800 alligators annually, Mr. Linscombe said.
Slidell sits hard against the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, which runs along the Louisiana-Mississippi border and is one of the last pockets of the great bald cypress swamps that used to cover much of the Deep South.
While the swamps do not teem with alligators like the marshland, there are plenty of reptiles in it, including “El Guapo,” a giant gator that has become a tourist attraction.
Tourists or those who hear about tragedies like the one that befell the Satterlees are always amazed to see local youths swinging on tree ropes and dropping into the Pearl River’s mud-colored depths.
“People are always blown away by the kids swimming here,” said Paul Trahan, owner of Honey Island Swamp Tours. “But they’re used to having the alligators around and they never bothered anybody.”
A chicken dangling on a string — that’s the old-fashioned, favored bait for hunters, and the higher the tasty bird dangles above the water’s surface the bigger the gator that can rise up and snag it. Once hooked, the gator plunges to the bottom, leaving taut lines to indicate a catch.
The image of wrassling with gators and fighting them into boats is largely “fiction,” that has been created in the popular imagination with shows like “Swamp People,” according to Mr. Linscombe. The actual affair, in which the reptiles are pulled to the surface and dispatched by gunshot, is usually less frenzied or dramatic.