How Commerce, Not the Feds, Saved the Alligator

Hunting can do more good than the Endangered Species Act.


Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Gainesville, Florida
Zach Weissmueller

In July 2015, the Internet went on an outrage bender after a well-to-do American dentist killed a beloved Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil. The backlash was so strong that the offending dentist briefly went into hiding; when he returned to work months later, a troop of angry protesters camped outside his office, awaiting the opportunity to call him a cold-blooded killer to his face.

In the United States, hunting big beautiful animals is a cultural taboo. But does that prohibition do more harm than good? When governments legalize the trade of valuable animals, moving the practice out of the black market, it actually helps sustain their populations.

That's exactly what happened with one iconic North American predator: the American alligator. At one time, there was doubt about whether the species would survive. Today, gators in the Gulf Coast states number in the millions. While federal agencies and some conservation groups like to credit the 1973 Endangered Species Act for the animal's recovery from near-extinction, the state-level regulators who actually oversaw its comeback have a different explanation. Theirs is a story of hunting, harvesting, commerce, and conservation working together for the greater good.

One person who had a swamp-level view is Tommy Hines, who ran Florida's alligator management program in the 1960s and '70s. A key element of Hines' strategy was a willingness to work with hunters and traders.

Tommy Hines

"The idea that the Endangered Species Act was responsible for the alligator's recovery is a myth," he says. "Those people who are most interested in the conservation of alligators in many cases are those who depend upon them for their livelihood."

Hines gives more credit to a 1969 amendment to the Lacey Act that required states to tag and track alligator hides. This opened up the alligator harvesting industry and created a strong incentive to ensure there would be a thriving population of the animals for years to come.

When the government focused its efforts on enabling a legitimate, flexible market, the results were stunning. Land owners suddenly had a strong motive to maintain alligator habitats. The creature's population stabilized and began to grow. A 1984 report from Louisiana's management program found that the number of alligator nests started to spike before the feds classified the species as endangered.

In fact, that step might have made the problem worse. By prohibiting states from setting reasonable hunting quotas, the law hampered the development of a well-regulated market for gator hides. Wildlife managers then had to battle to get the animal taken off the endangered list, which they did in 1977. "By that time," says Allan Woodward, another former head of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "we were having major problems with nuisance alligators."

Today alligator hunting is widely practiced and has even been the subject of reality TV shows, such as the History channel's Swamp People. And most of that harvesting activity—40 percent in Florida and close to 90 percent in Louisiana—happens on private land.

"The whole North American model of wildlife management is based on the idea that sustained harvest is not only possible, it's a positive," says Hines, "because it's generated a tremendous amount of funds to go back into conservation, to go back into wildlife research."

Sometimes you have to hunt an animal to save it.