Leader Blues

Saturday, June 06, 2009

TOP STORY >> Alligator wrestling comes to Ward

By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff write

What do you do when you see an alligator about to cross the road?

Faced with that question Tuesday evening, Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson, a former rodeo performer, lassoed the animal and jumped on its back like it was one of the bucking broncos or bulls he rode in his younger days.

Then while the sheriff held the gator’s mouth, one of the 20 or so motorists who had stopped to watch the unusual sight taped it closed.

“We called the Game and Fish but they were going to be awhile and he was trying to get away,” the sheriff said.

The spectacle was played out on Hwy. 38 between Butlerville and Coco’s restaurant in Ward. The sheriff said he acted because he was afraid that just the sight of an alligator near the highway was enough to cause wrecks.

Except for one scratch on the sheriff’s finger, no one was injured. But the sheriff said catching the gator was trickier than he thought it would be.

“I was worried about his head, but his tail was just about as vicious,” he said.

When Game and Fish officials arrived, Roberson said he helped load the gator into a truck and he hoped it was relocated to a place where it could help thin out the beaver population.

The gator, a 5-foot, 3-inch female that was likely in search of a mate since May and June are the breeding season, was released unharmed into the backwater of the Arkansas River, said Kelly Irwin, herpetologist for the Game and Fish Commission and the state’s leading expert on alligators.

Irwin said the 2,800 alligators that were taken from the swamps of Louisiana and released mostly in the southeastern third of Arkansas between 1972 and 1984 have increased to as many as 5,000. But the population does not appear to be expanding and neither is their range.

According to the Game and Fish Web site, most adult alligators are 6 to 12 feet in length. But females are usually smaller than males and stop growing at 6 to 7 feet.

Alligator have been in Arkansas for thousands of years before settlers cleared and drained the land where they lived and hunted them without restriction, Irwin said.

By the 1960s they were on the endangered species list but 30 years of federal and state regulation and restocking efforts have increased their numbers throughout the southeastern U.S. Now they are protected, but no longer endangered.

In Arkansas, there is even a hunting season the last two weekends in September in which a lottery, much like the one used for elk hunting, allows the taking of 32 alligators.

About 80 percent of Arkansas’ imported alligators were placed on private property at the request of the owners who hoped they would thin out the beavers that dam waterways and cause flooding problems, Irwin said.

Since adult alligators eat fish, birds, beavers, otters and other mammals, the theory was plausible. But beavers, which Irwin said rebounded without assistance from Game and Fish, still thrives in the state.

For the most part, alligators are not dangerous, he said, adding that he has heard of no injuries from alligators in the nine years he has lived in Arkansas.

“Most move away when humans approach but females are protective of their nests,” he said.

Stopping short of calling the sheriff’s actions illegal, Irwin said not even local law enforcement officers have the authority to trap an alligator.

From the pictures he saw of the area it looked like it was not heavily populated.

The gator appeared to be in a horse pasture where it was not a danger to small children or pets.

“That is a wild animal. They need to contact Game and Fish and let us deal with the situation,” he said.

The agency has teams all over the state trained to deal with nuisance black bears and alligators.

So what should you do when you see an alligator about to cross the road?

The alligator is protected by state and federal laws, and it is illegal to feed, possess, harass or kill them, Irwin said.

He suggested leaving them alone and calling the Game and Fish Commission to handle trapping it.

“Keep an eye on it, but keep your distance,” he said.