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MT Press: Student's senior project includes gator hunt

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Posted by W von Papinešu on March 31, 2003 at 20:15:28:

BILLINGS GAZETTE (Montana) 30 March 03 Student's senior project includes Florida alligator hunt (Jane Rider)
Missoula: Beau Wurster had never so much as hunted a deer before last fall, when he set out to harpoon an 8-foot alligator on 1,000 acres of privately owned marshes and wetlands near Melbourne, Fla.
On a muggy October night, the 18-year-old boarded a 20-foot airboat for a guided hunt in which Wurster had the option of using a bow and arrow or harpoon to bag the large lizard.
The Big Sky High School senior had diligently practiced for this night in the back yard of his Lolo home, repeatedly throwing an unscrewed broom handle at a shrinking target until he'd mastered the motion.
"The problem was the actual harpoon ended up weighing about 20 pounds heavier than that broomstick," Wurster recalled with a smile.
He wasn't too nervous. He didn't have a chance to be. He spotted alligators everywhere upon arriving at a parking area near the launch site. They moved slowly along the shoreline and slid into the dark water. He heard them thrash about.
"I wouldn't go near the water's edge at night," said Mike Carter, Wurster's dad who accompanied him on the trip. "You are in their domain."
Only a part of project
An alligator adventure was just one element to Wurster's Big Sky High School senior project, a comprehensive yearlong assignment that students are required to complete before graduation.
Once they pick their topic, seniors must write a research paper, design a portfolio, develop and deliver a presentation and pen a reflection paper.
At first, Wurster had considered writing his research paper on the history of the alligator and conservation of the species, but after discussing the topic with his project mentor Bill Geer -- executive director of the Outdoor Writers Association of America -- he decided that idea was too broad.
He narrowed the focus to the growing conflicts between alligators and humans in the Sunshine State. Alligator hunts fit into the topic because hunting is one tool Florida wildlife officials use to manage the species.
"It's a great topic for a boy his age to explore," said Geer, also the executive director at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "My role was to offer suggestions."
Geer encouraged Wurster to deepen his research and interview Florida wildlife officials to learn how they manage the species in the face of a growing human population encroaching on alligator habitat.
More than a hunt
For Geer, the project had to include more than just Wurster going on an alligator hunt.
"If the only thing the project was about was going on an alligator hunt, it would be pretty shallow," he said. "His thinking had to go far beyond the hunt. He needed to talk about how alligators fit into society."
Geer told Wurster he wanted to learn not only how Florida wildlife managers deal with alligator-and-people conflicts, but also how most Floridians tolerate living alongside the large predator.
Once widely hunted for its skin, the American alligator was on the brink of extinction earlier this century, Wurster said. A conservation program set up in the 1950s banned hunting and saved the species. Its numbers have since recovered so well that populations of the large reptile -- Florida has about 1.5 million -- are now partially managed through organized hunting and by removal of nuisance alligators from neighborhoods.
The greatest threat to the alligator now is loss of habitat and contamination of marshes and wetlands.
"There are new people moving to Florida every day and they are all looking for waterfront property," Wurster said. "Alligators don't go looking for people to harass, but there are bound to be encounters."
Wurster estimated he spotted about 500 alligators during his six-day trip. They appeared in their natural habitat of wetlands and marshes as well as in ditches along roadsides and near parking lots. On their visit to Kennedy Space Center, Wurster and Carter learned that high frequency sound devices are set up on the runways to deter alligators from crossing them.
"They are almost like squirrels are here," he said.
As part of his project, Wurster needed to gather background and video footage of alligators in their natural habitat. So before the hunt, he and Carter also spent a day at Gatorland, a 110-acre park and wildlife preserve in Orlando, where Wurster filmed dozens of alligators, adults and babies.
All in one piece?
Lisa Carter, Wurster's mom, was supportive of her husband and son embarking on their alligator adventure, but she admitted she couldn't help but worry.
"I said, 'Please call me when he gets his gator so I know he's all in one piece,' " she said. "But I knew he was with a good outfitter and I knew Mike would take good care of him."
Wurster's hunting guide knew their excursion was part of a school project as well as a hunt, so he tried to provide filming opportunities whenever possible. He gave Wurster a lesson on how to use a harpoon and avoid getting tangled up in rope tied to it and a buoy.
Wurster had his mind set on bagging an 8-footer. When the guide located the animal, the teen realized he had underestimated just how big that size really is.
His first attempt at harpooning it failed. "I was just getting the jitters out of the way," he said.
On his second try, he discovered he had to aim lower than what appeared to be accurate to compensate for the light's refraction through the water.
His third attempt hit the mark and he reeled in the thrashing gator.
"You could have played a tune on his forearm," Carter said, recalling how Wurster kept a taut rope for 20 to 30 minutes to hold the gradually tiring alligator alongside the boat.
To make sure the reptile was dead, the guide showed Wurster how to use a bang stick, a spring-loaded firing device that puts a bullet through the alligator's head. Then they pulled the large lizard over the boat's edge and taped its mouth shut.
Up this close, Carter and Wurster observed the sharpness of its nails and the power of its tail.
"Those nails could cut some major arteries and that tail could knock you out," Carter said.
More work to be done
Wurster still has 13 hours of film to edit before finishing his senior project. He took a class on videotaping and editing so he is confident he can wrap that before the May deadline.
The project has taught him a lot, he said, from research and writing to geography and wildlife management.
He and Carter also have a lot more respect for alligators. The animals impressed them with their size, strength and intelligence.
As for the hunt, Carter said it compares to nothing else.
"You are with it ... you pull it up and then you are one-on-one with it," he said. "It's not easy and it's not necessarily safe, but Beau did it well. He listened to the guide and he did his homework."
For Wurster, the hunt was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"I don't know anybody else who has ever done it except the dentist in town," he said.
It was fair chase. "The alligators aren't fenced in and they don't feed or bait them there," Carter noted.
And as for the alligator they killed, none of it went to waste, he added.
Wurster gave its hide to a purse and shoe manufacturer and stocked his family's freezer with alligator meat.
Wurster enjoyed the experience so much, he hopes to go on another hunt someday. Carter would be glad to tag along.
"I had as good a time as he did just watching him," Carter said. "It was a neat father-son thing to do together."

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