'Alligator Capital of Texas' hit hard by Hurricane Ike

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

ANAHUAC, Texas -- In this town on the edge of Trinity Bay, alligators normally outnumber people three to one, and the annual Texas GatorFest draws 30,000 people -- more than 10 times the town's population.

But not this year, not after Hurricane Ike. The storm forced the cancellation of the festival and made the 20-day gator hunting season a shadow of its normal self. Wildlife officials say the gators' habitat and food sources also took a significant hit and it may take time for the population to recover.

But the official "Alligator Capital of Texas" will rise again, vows Mayor Guy Robert Jackson.

The Sept. 13 storm slammed ashore near Galveston with a 12-foot to 15-foot storm surge along the upper Texas Gulf Coast and its dozens of swampy waterways.

Because alligators require fresh water to survive, the rush of salt water sent them scurrying farther inland and made many of them ill, sometimes fatally so.

"Alligators are amazing -- very tough. But they've been dislocated, on the move, with no food available, and fresh water is hard to find," said Tim Cooper if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In Anahuac (ANN'-uh-wack), about 50 miles east of Houston, mobile homes were crumpled, bricks were ripped from homes and hunting lodges were in shambles. The roof of the alligator-themed souvenir store was torn off.

Normally, hundreds of folks come to the town during the alligator season, paying big bucks for the chance to bag a 13-foot reptile on guided hunts. Locals pay landowners for the right to slog through their marshes in search of a big capture.

The annual GatorFest -- complete with a pageant for GatorFest Queen and fried alligator legs on the menu -- brings in half a million dollars. It would have been on the same weekend as Ike hit.

Mark Porter, 54, has hunted gators since 1984, when Texas legalized the practice after a 15-year ban. His Anahuac business processes gator hides and meat and offers guided hunts.

In a normal season, he said, he gets up to 1,000 alligators to process from hunters and his own kills. But this year he had only 300, he said Tuesday, the last day of the alligator hunting season.

Porter also had to cancel the 20 hunts he was going to lead this year, estimating he lost 75 percent of revenue from all his gator-related endeavors.

"It's going to be a loss, but I was able to salvage some of the season," Porter said.

Hunters sell the meat to restaurants and the hides to Louisiana, the nation's leader in the alligator harvesting business. Most are then sold to overseas buyers to become handbags, shoes, belts and other products.

In the wake of the storm, alligators scrambled out of the now-salty marshes where they like to hide.

They're hungry, but with fewer meal options: many fish died in the storm, and experts say the alligators are getting as stressed out as hurricane-battered humans.

"This has upset the food chain, and predators at the pinnacle of that are going to struggle," said Cooper, a project leader at the 34,000-acre Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

While Texas wildlife officials have not tallied alligator deaths since Ike, they plan to do a survey in a few months and also monitor the egg-laying season, which starts in June, said Monique Slaughter, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's alligator program.

"There will be some effects from Ike, and if necessary we'll make those adjustments with the (hunting) season," Slaughter said.

Porter has four dozen alligators for breeding in a large pond on his 36-acre property. He hoped to keep them awhile but decided to kill nearly half to offset his hurricane-related losses. Otherwise, he couldn't pay his workers.

"This is my retirement," Porter said last week, pointing to a dozen alligators floating silently, the bumps of their eyes and noses barely visible above the murky water. "This whole situation hurts."

But the mayor is more upbeat.

"The tourism segment, including hunting, will take a hit," Jackson said. "The good thing about nature is it's very resilient. We just have to make sure we put the infrastructure back in place. We are still the `Alligator Capital of Texas."'

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