Decades of monitoring and eight seasons of tightly controlled recreational hunting have brought Georgia's once imperiled alligator population to a sustainable balance, according to a new statewide management plan.
"At this point in time we're pretty much where we want to be," said John Bowers, the assistant game management chief for Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division.
The state's alligator population is estimated at about 222,000 -- a number that should remain fairly constant and still allow limited-quota hunts, which have spiraled in popularity since their inception in 2003.
"Even prior to initiating the hunting season, we had been monitoring and surveying the alligator population for decades," Bowers said. "When we started the hunting seasons, we took a very conservative approach, and we've continued our monitoring throughout the time we've had the hunting seasons."
There are now 850 alligator tags available to hunters each year, allocated through a lottery drawing.
"That 850 is our quota," Bowers said. "It may sound high, but our goal is not to have 850 harvested every year. Rather, the quota is set based on what we've seen relative to success rates in previous seasons."
Typically, fewer than half the permits result in an alligator being harvested.
"Our quota system takes into account that a large percentage of hunters will be unsuccessful," he said. "We have a general target of 300 alligators annually, and we hit that mark this past season."
Although permit numbers have risen only slightly, the number of applicants seeking a gator tag has risen dramatically -- from 2,560 in 2003 to 6,522 last year.
According to the new management plan, the density of alligators is as high as it has ever been -- almost seven per mile -- based on traditional "spotlight surveys" that have been used to estimate population trends. Bowers cautioned that such counting can also be influenced by drought, floods and weather, however.
The management plan calls for continuing the use of zones in which specific portions of the state can be evaluated for the anticipated harvest needs and the number of permits can be adjusted when necessary. Wildlife authorities also designed the management plan to reduce nuisance alligator situations that can cause conflicts.
Before 1900, alligator populations were abundant across the southeastern U.S., including the coastal plain of Georgia. However, unregulated harvests and poaching reduced their numbers, and a low point was reached in Georgia in the 1960s, when the species was listed as federally endangered.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources first estimated the total alligator population in 1973 at just 29,954. By 1982, the population was estimated at 101,644. Today's estimated 222,000 animals includes a population in most areas where they once thrived, the management plan said.