Texas gators hanging in there

There’s good news despite the bad news for Texas’ alligators.

This year’s admittedly inexact estimate of the gator population in their prime habitat zone – the wetlands along the arc of the Texas coast – indicates there are a lot more alligators out there than most thought.

At least half a million gators, and maybe as many as 700,000, live in the 22 “core” alligator counties – up from earlier estimates of 400,000 or so. Tens of thousands more are scattered across the other counties in the eastern half of Texas.

(In the 1960s, before they were protected by federal and state law carrying penalties packing a wallop as painful as getting slapped by the tail of a 12-foot “bull” gator, Texas’ gator population had dropped to only a few thousand.)

“The population, overall, is doing pretty good,” Amos Cooper, who heads alligator programs for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, understated. “We’re not going to run out of alligators any time soon.”

But there have been a few bumps in the muddy road upon which Texas alligators crawl, especially along the upper coast where the state’s largest gator population lives.

“A lot of habitat has never really recovered from Hurricane Ike,” Cooper said of the wetlands in Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties, which held as many as 300,000 gators before the September 2008 storm.

Ike’s saltwater surge killed, outright, some gators and forced others into available freshwater. Some of those died from delayed effects of saltwater exposure, and others, especially smaller gators, fell prey to larger gators – alligators are highly cannibalistic.

But the biggest problem was Ike’s damage to brackish and freshwater wetlands gators require and the lack of salt-flushing, vegetation-regenerating rains over the past three years.

“We’ve just never had the rain we need to flush the salt from the marshes,” Cooper said.

This year’s drought added greatly to the problem.

“We had our second-worst nesting season on record this year,” Cooper said. Only the summer of 2009, the first nesting season following Ike, saw wildlife managers count fewer alligator nests.

See here and here for previous gator updates. The good news is that alligators are long-lived, so a bad mating season or two isn’t devastating to the population. On the other hand, we don’t know how long this drought will last. It sure would be nice if we had some boring weather for a few years, wouldn’t it?

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