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See ya later, alligator! Alligator season in Mississippi isn't a sport for the weary.

For millions of years the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) survived and flourished in the fresh-and brackish-water swamps throughout the southeastern United States. With thousands of acres of prime habitat, Mississippi boasts one of the healthiest populations in the country--between 32,000 and 38,000.

In the wild, alligators can live to be around 50 years old. After reaching four feet in length, they have no predators, other than humans. As juveniles, they feed on invertebrates, small fish, insects, snails, spiders, worms, and other small prey. As they mature, their diet changes to mammals such as deer, raccoons, rabbits, and any other opportunistic meals that might come their way. An alligator can go through as many as 3,000 teeth in a lifetime. They have 74 and 80 teeth at a time, replacing old and worn-down teeth as needed. A female will lay an average of 35 and 50 eggs. When they reach maturity, the average size of an adult female is 8.2 feet, while males often reach 11.2 feet, and some adult males can weigh over 1,000 pounds.

The story of the American alligator has not been without drama. In the late 1800s through the mid 1900s, alligators were hunted to near extinction. Their exotic hides brought a premium in the commercial market, and a general lack of regulation and conservation, coupled with habitat destruction, was almost the demise of the ancient reptile. Fortunately, in 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) put the alligator on the Endangered Species List, meaning it was in severe danger of extinction.

What transpired over the next 20 years went down in history as one of the finest success stories in the nation's endangered species program. Through the determination and diligence of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), the USFWS and state wildlife agencies across the South, the American alligator was saved. From 1970 to 1978, around 4,000 alligators were captured and relocated to Mississippi. This combined with strict penalties, allowed alligator populations to not only recover but, in many cases, to move into areas where they had not previously existed.

Populations have bounced back in such full force that in 2005, Mississippi issued 50 tags, giving hunters the opportunity to hunt alligators on a 16-mile section of the Pearl River north of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. In 2012, 810 permits will be issued in 28 counties, and it is estimated that more than 3,000 hunters will apply for these tags. MDWFP has done an amazing job of educating the public and requiring alligator hunters to complete a four-hour course focusing on alligator history, biology, and research, capture and harvest methods, tagging and reporting, skinning and processing instructions, and hunting and boat safety. Ricky Flint, the Alligator Program Coordinator for the MDWFP, has gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure the program's success.

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The story of the American alligator is one of encouragement. By working together, USFWS, MDWFP, and other state agencies have brought a species back from almost certain peril. It would have been a travesty to loose such a remarkable creature and a detriment to the ecosystems that rely on an apex predator like the American alligator to keep balance in these environments. With continued management and conservation, the American alligator will continue to flourish and thrive in the wetlands of Mississippi and the southeastern United States.

ALLIGATOR SEASO:

Applications accepted: June 1-15 Season dates: September 7-17 Mandatory courses: August 4, 11, and 18 Visit www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/alligator-program.aspx for more information.

by Jacob r. shemper | photograph by roger tanksley
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Title Annotation:ms adventures
Author:Shemper, Jacob R.
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Words:605
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