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FL Press: Gator trappers feel gigged by new rules

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Posted by W von Papinešu on March 31, 2003 at 20:14:39:

TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT (Florida) 30 March 03 Gator trappers feel gigged by new rules (Gerald Ensley)
You know the saying: Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. And you won't like it.
That's what Florida's 38 nuisance alligator trappers have discovered. The trappers spent years lobbying the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for guaranteed payment for their services.
Fish and Wildlife Conservation recently agreed - but tied the payments to an expansion of the state's annual open alligator hunt.
The trade-off so incensed the nuisance trappers - who think the expansion will hurt them and the state's alligator population - that they threatened not to accept the new payment plan.
Wednesday, the trappers and FWC reached a compromise: The trappers agreed to accept the payment plan, while the state agreed to re-examine the expanded public hunt next year.
But it is a tentative truce in a battle the trappers promise will ignite again.
"I don't think we can get any better deal from the commission right now," said Don Ashley, a wildlife consultant who represented 29 of the trappers at Wednesday's meeting. "But I don't think the public understands the (ramifications of the expanded) public hunt. And I think the commission is going to get a lot of (negative) feedback by next year."
The FWC established the nuisance alligator trapper program in 1978. State-approved trappers are assigned to cover one to five counties each, and they are sent to capture alligators that threaten humans.
The nuisance trappers capture 50 to 300 alligators apiece per year, depending on their territory. The trappers' only pay has been the alligators, which they sell for hides and meat. For many years, the trappers considered that adequate recompense, as the average alligator earned a trapper $400 to $500.
But in recent years, the market for hides and meat has dropped dramatically. An average alligator now fetches trappers $200 to $300. Meanwhile, trappers' expenses for fuel, trucks and boats have gone up, as have the number of "empty" runs: Last year, the nuisance trappers responded to more than 17,000 complaints but caught only 6,200 alligators.
"You may handle 600 complaints to catch 200 gators," said Tony Hunter, the nuisance trapper for Leon and three surrounding counties. "We are the only contractors that have to pay the state to do a service for it."
Thus, starting a couple of years ago, the trappers began lobbying the FWC to provide some form of guaranteed payment for the trappers, in addition to the alligators they caught.
The FWC eventually agreed. In January, its seven-person governing board approved a compensation plan in which the trappers would receive $20 for each alligator they caught and an annual fuel stipend of $1,850 or a straight $30 per alligator.
The 38 trappers were asked to vote for their preference by April 10, with the majority vote to determine the payment plan for all trappers.
The proposal disappointed the trappers, who had proposed a $25,000-per-year stipend. The FWC plan pays the trappers only $2,000 to $10,000 a year.
But what was more distressing to the trappers was the state's method of funding their compensation: expanding the public hunt.
Each year, the state allows private individuals to buy a permit to catch alligators during a five-week period in September and October. The program began in 1988 and has been popular even as applications dropped from a high of 14,000 to 4,000 last year, largely because of decreasing bag limits (permit holders once could take 15 alligators; now the limit is two) and the permit fee ($270). Last year, 1,549 permits were awarded.
But a permit holder has always been restricted to hunting alligators on only one of about 50 bodies of water in Florida whose alligator populations are annually surveyed by the FWC.
To pay for the trappers' compensation program, however, the FWC voted to expand the public hunt area to any wetland in any unincorporated area. Relying on a formula of how many alligators generally live in a habitat, the state determined it could grant another 758 permits without negatively affecting the population of alligators in any location.
The trappers insist the countywide hunting will be a disaster. For one thing, they say it will reduce the number of gators they catch, as amateur hunters invade the areas previously open only to the nuisance hunters.
Houston Taff, the nuisance trapper for Wakulla, Franklin and Liberty counties, catches 200 alligators a year. The countywide expansion will result in an additional 37 permits (for two alligators apiece) in Wakulla and Franklin counties.
"You take 74 alligators out of 200 and it's going to affect me big-time," Taff said.
More importantly, the nuisance trappers say, the countywide hunt will decimate alligator populations in the newly opened areas. They say it will lead to more poaching, illegal hunting methods and trespassing on private property.
They also say the countywide hunting will alarm the public, as amateur trappers hunt on popular rivers and lakes - such as the Wakulla and Ochlockonee rivers - where alligators are part of the scenery.
"Canoers and kayakers enjoy going down a river and seeing an alligator perched on a log," Ashley said. "It's part of the Florida experience."
State officials say some of the nuisance trappers' concerns are overwrought.
They say nuisance (6,000 to 7,000 per year), public (2,000 to 3,000) and licensed private-land hunters (3,000) together capture fewer than 14,000 alligators a year - and the state has an estimated population of 1 million alligators.
"The fact remains that the best places for the public to see an alligator is in the parks, preserves and refuges (exempt from public hunting)," said Harry Dutton, the FWC alligator management section leader. "We have established ultra-conservative numbers (for the public hunt). I refuse to believe that taking an additional 20 alligators from Leon County, for instance, is going to cause a noticeable drop in the alligator population."
Mainly, state officials say they are responding to the trappers' economic concerns in the only feasible way.
"They said they needed the money and they said they needed it now," said Maj. Kyle Hill, chief of support services for the FWC division of law enforcement. "In the budget situation we're in, there was no way we could ask the Legislature for more money. We had to find a way to make (the compensation program) pay for itself."
The FWC promised to revisit the issue next year. Commissioner David Meehan said last week if the countywide hunts do cause problems for the trappers, alligators or public, "We can go back to the specified bodies of water next year."
The trappers hope so.
"We're going to have people running around killing alligators without any checks and balances," Hunter said. "And that's going to be a huge problem."

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