Alligator hunters may be allowed to use handguns and pursue their prey 24 hours a day, under proposals intended to provide them with more flexibility in killing the most formidable inhabitant of Florida's rivers, lakes and swamps.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hear a report Dec. 6 on the alligator hunting program and whether to loosen restrictions on a hunt that the report says "has received tremendous national and international media attention and continues to be a model to other states."
Harry Dutton, coordinator of Florida's alligator management program, said the resumption of hunting in 1988 has had little impact on the state's alligator population, currently numbering about 1.3 million.
"We consider the alligator population stable," he said. "It's held up very well."
Under the handgun proposal, he said, hunters would not be permitted to just point a revolver at an alligator and fire away. Rather they would have to catch the animal first, using a harpoon, spear gun or other approved method. Once they get the alligator to their boat, they could use the handgun to dispatch it. The current approved method involves the use of what's called a bang stick, a stick with one end that fires a bullet or shotgun shell upon making direct contact with the prey.
"Handguns are a very common weapon to have," Dutton said. "The only weapons we currently allow is a bang stick, a very expensive and specific tool, and not everyone has one. You don't need a particularly large caliber handgun to dispatch an alligator. A .22 would do it."
Protected as an endangered species in 1967, the American alligator rebounded so robustly that several states reinitiated hunts. Florida uses a lottery system to distribute permits that allow each holder to kill two alligators. The season runs from Aug. 15 to Nov. 1, with hunting allowed only from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m.
Last year hunters killed 8,103 alligators. The record alligator was 14 feet, three and a half inches, killed in 2010 in Lake Washington in Brevard County . The average killed last year was 8 feet, 1 inch.
Al Hernandez, an alligator hunter who lives in Hollywood, said he supports 24-hour hunting. "Just this past year I found a big female gator guarding her nest and it was really hard to get close to her and we had to leave at 10 a.m.," he said.
But he opposes the use of handguns, an innovation he says would bring inaccurate, dangerous firepower to an activity that requires a lot of skill. "I don't see that as safe gator hunting," he said.
The state discussion is distinct from the pending federal proposal to allow alligator hunting at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, a plan supported by hunters and opposed by environmentalists and animal rights groups.
Charles Lee, advocacy director of Audubon of Florida, expressed doubts about the handgun proposal, saying it would result in a lot of injured alligators.
"With the bang stick you've got to draw the alligator right up to the boat with a lasso or harpoon in order to discharge the bang stick," he said. "But a handgun doesn't require that degree of capture of the alligator before you pull the trigger. You may end up with more alligators that are wounded and get away and just rot in the river, as opposed to those that actually are harvested."
Although there has been a decline in the state's alligator population in the past seven years, the report to be presented said this is likely the result of elevated hunting quotas in certain areas and should prove temporary as the state imposes stricter quotas in areas that have seen declines. The state has already reduced quotas in Central and North Florida, after tour operators and others complained that large alligators had become harder to find, Dutton said.
Dutton said the absence of large alligators may be simply the result of the animals' becoming more wary, not more rare.
"They know what danger represents, and you put a lot of people out on the water shining lights and they can be very elusive," he said.
But Lee said he thinks there are simply fewer big alligators on the water. On the Withlacoochee River, where he lives, for example, he sees fewer big ones.
"They have definitely reduced the large alligator population to a significant degree," he said "You're going to depopulate the wild of the large, sort of grandfather alligators that are so nice to see when you're paddling down the river."