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Saving the 'smiling' face of Florida.

In some parts of Florida it's an everyday thing to find a gator crossing the road in front of you, seeking refuge in your backyard swimming pool, or just basking in the sun on the banks of the nearest waterway. In fact, estimates suggest that the Sunshine State plays host to more than a million of what is the world's most intelligent reptile.

But this profusion of Florida's most famous native is a fairly recent phenomenon. The American alligator was classified as a threatened species as recently as 1967. It was downgraded in 1987 due to a massive effort on all fronts to protect both the reptile and its habitat.

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To understand why, you have to take a short trip through the forest. In Florida, that forest was tall and majestic: longleaf pine harvested to near-extinction for buildings, furniture, and almost any other form of construction. The trees thrived in an area constantly swept by wildfire and were plentiful. So immense were these forests, the stories go, that if so inclined you could travel between Virginia, Texas, and Florida without every leaving the longleaf's treetops. But when the coveted longleaf was harvested to near-extinction, profit seekers in Florida turned their gaze on another seemingly endless resource: alligators.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries alligators (Alligator mississippiensi) were hunted for the high quality leather their soft bellies provided. Skins were shipped overseas and worked into wallets, boots, jackets, and other apparel. By the 1950s, the South's alligator population was severely depleted, especially in Florida.

Between 1870 and 1970 an estimated 10 million alligators were killed, and the loss of a native species was starting to take its toll on the local ecosystem.

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Government regulations, a state listing of the American alligator as a "species of special concern," and the advent of farms that grow the reptiles for meat and leather have all helped Florida's population of wild alligators bounce back. But to thrive, the scaly natives must have a healthy ecosystem in which to live.

Several parks and forests within Florida have been replanting longleaf pine and other native species on upland areas with the help of grants from AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf Forests campaign. In the past year alone, Ocala National Forest and Withlacoochee State Forest have planted more than 150,000 longleaf pines--reforestation made necessary by outbreaks of wildfire and the southern pine beetle.

Among the targeted areas in Florida: upland habitat linked to the gator's ecosystem. In Ocala National Forest, foresters and local volunteers replaced slash pine with stronger, more resilient longleaf pine. They also removed beddings laid down to aid the slash pine's initial growth, material which over the long term created essentially a ditch that increased runoff and erosion to nearby highway drainage, adjoining lowlands, and alligator habitat.

Returning the landscape to its natural form will allow the area to retain more rainwater and soil nutrients, which in turn will mean better water quality and the return of beneficial vegetation. And that spells good news for gators, which can't survive in areas of extremely poor water quality, according to studies done by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The greatest threat today to alligators is in the changes to existing areas of their habitat. Changes in water management practices have been found to lead to declining numbers of alligators, creating flooding in some areas like Everglades National Park, while other areas in northern Florida are in near-drought status.

In Everglades National Park, ranger Rick Cook says the goal is to return the land to its native state. That decision was made after studies showed the effect local water management systems can have on the wetlands ecosystem.

Cook and his fellow park rangers dub the grayish-black alligator "the trademark of the Everglades" for its eternal popularity among tourists. Without a doubt, the snap-jawed, quick-moving reptile is the hot topic of visitors' questions and is the creature tourists most want to see.

"When most of our visitors think of the Everglades, they tend to think of alligators," Cook says. "They are 'top of the line' predators here and they convey an almost prehistoric sense of the timelessness of the Everglades."

Near Ocala National Forest where she is based, Jodi Bock of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission says it's not uncommon to see tourists pulled onto the side of the road attempting to get a closer look at basking alligators. Those lounging lizards may look lazy but will quickly earn your respect as a top-of-the-food-chain creature of the wild when they flash 70 to 80 razor sharp teeth.

"They may look like statues," Bock comments, "but they're not."

Other than its poster child status, what makes American alligators so important to Florida? According to Bock, the alligator is considered a "keystone" species in the wetland ecosystem because it "alters the environment to the benefit of other species within their habitat."

Those instinctive actions are not only essential for the gator's survival but provide habitat for numerous other species that share its water space. During the dry season in the Everglades, alligators use their tails, feet, and snouts to clear silt out of water-filled holes, creating in essence a small pond or marsh so they can submerge themselves.

The nutrient-rich soil that winds up on the banks in the making of gator holes grows a variety of native plants, and locals from turtles to fish to wading birds come to the gator hole to find nourishment. The holes retain water long after the resident alligator moves on.

"Alligators are called the natural engineers of the 'Glades," ranger Rick Cook says. "They respond to the annual drying of the marsh by creating and maintaining water holes as their places of refuge. These become their dry season homes and in turn also attract and sustain the other Everglades wildlife who depend on the water to survive the winter."

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Without the alligators' maintenance, these holes would dry up and fill with plants within a couple of years, experts say. And near the holes is where alligators choose to build nests that can hatch up to 30 to 40 baby gators each year and sometimes even local turtles, which may share the nest.

Remove the alligators from Florida's ecosystem, and the list of those who would suffer would include wading birds such as great blue herons, egrets, and wood storks; numerous species of fish and turtles; and even large mammals such as the eastern white-tailed deer.

More often of late the battle to save Florida's famous face focuses on protecting its habitat against development. And that success has been found by not only protecting gator habitat but the surrounding upland areas as well. The hard work of rangers and conservationists together with planting programs like AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf efforts in Ocala National Forest and Withlacoochie State Forest will ensure that the "face" of Florida continues to be scaly and sharp-toothed.

SHARP-TOOTHED AND SCALY, FLORIDA'S BIGGEST TOURIST ATTRACTION BENEFITS FROM EFFORTS TO REPLANT NATIVE TREES AND IMPROVE WATER QUALITY.

Ethan Kearns works in AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf and Big Tree departments.
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Title Annotation:alligator restoration project
Author:Kearns, Ethan
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:1187
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