Gator Glut

photo by Eric Ethridge at Millwood Lake
photo by Eric Ethridge at Millwood Lake

Gator Glut

Did the efforts to protect the American Alligator become overly successful?

This is no doubt an effort that is appreciated by all nature lovers, but the current alligator populations in South Arkansas continue to increase at an alarming rate. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) Tech Blake Keener said the problem at Beard’s Lake Park, part of Millwood Lake, stemmed from people illegally feeding the alligators. Alligators are skittish of humans, and feeding them can cause their natural fear of humans to dissipate. “There have been warnings given out here for that,” said Millwood State Park Superintendent Eric Lindy.

According to the AGFC website, between 1860 and 1960, alligator populations throughout the southeastern United States were “severely depleted,” reaching an all-time low, due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. In 1961, AGFC enacted a regulation to protect alligators.

According to Millwood Lake Guide Service owner Mike Siefert, severe depletion is the opposite of the current issue. Millwood Lake is a 29,260-acre lake in the southwest corner of Arkansas in Little River County, 16 miles upstream from its confluence with the Red River. It is a popular lake for bass fishing tournaments and birding. Siefert says he’s been “voicing concern about the problem for years” but admits there is no easy fix.

U.S. Congress passed legislation in March 1967 listing the alligator as endangered. In January 1977, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) downlisted the alligator from endangered to threatened. In 1987, it was delisted to recovered status, eventually saying populations were stable. An agreement was made years ago between the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the AGFC for a restocking program. Around 80 percent of those alligators were released on private lands at the owner’s request, believing they would control populations of rough fish, turtles, venomous snakes, and beavers.

Siefert disagrees that “stable” accurately depicts the current situations in Millwood and other water bodies in South Arkansas. “It is a multifaceted problem. I have an 18-and-a-half-foot bass boat and have seen some as long as my boat. These gators exceed 15-16 feet and 1,100-1,200 pounds,” and without a doubt, it is directly affecting the lake’s ecosystem.

According to Siefert, the alligators eat the nutria, which consume the vegetation. This vegetation is a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem and keeps too much sedimentation from building up in the lakebed. “The gators have nearly caused the extinction of the nutria by eating them,” he said. “As a result, the lake isn’t able to hold the capacity of water it was designed to hold.” Millwood Lake was built specifically for flood control by the Army Corps of Engineers, who also control vegetation. “They do a great job, but there’s only so much they can do with herbicides due to the lake being a water supply for area communities.”

Aside from that, the situation has created fear for lakegoers and campers. Park Superintendent Lindy said the campground area has no reports of any incidents. He claimed there are areas of the lake where the alligators are more prevalent, but not around the camping area of the state park. The park officials offer safety tips on what to do if you come near one. They also provide educational programs and post warning signs, including warnings that an alligator is nearby if you hear a loud hissing.

Penny Arnold lost the dog she had for eight years to an alligator at Clear Lake, off Old Post Road, in Texarkana, Arkansas. She said the alligator pulled her dog, Bailey, into the water, drowned her, and then ate her. Arnold was, of course, traumatized by witnessing the horrific attack and losing her beloved pet. “I loved her. She was my lifesaver after the death of my spouse,” Arnold said. She described the incident with tears falling down her cheeks but hopes it can be a warning to others. Arnold was watching her pet and saw the alligator but “thought it was a log.” This is something to take note of, she said. “They are hard to see in the water, and often, only their eyes are sticking up above the water.”

“Bailey was a Basset Hound—very curious, and it was nearing winter, so the gator was looking for food, and it was huge. Bailey couldn’t swim. She was on the bank when I saw it take her. If a dog could scream, that’s what it sounded like. I just kept thinking she was going to pop up in a minute and escape, but then I saw the water start turning colors. It was horrifying.” Arnold explained that if you hear there are alligators in the lake, do not think it’s a novelty. “They are vicious killers.”

Is this as big a problem for other bodies of water in South Arkansas and Northeast Texas? “It stands to reason that if the AGFC alligator policies are the same for other areas in the region, the problem would be the same at other lakes,” Siefert answered. “I am all over Millwood Lake. The other day, I was talking to some residents at Yarborough Landing, and they are scared to let their kids out. A family was fishing off the dock recently, and an alligator came right up and took the bait off the fishing pole. They gathered their kids and dogs up and left because they were scared to death that the gator was going to come up where they were. So yes. It’s a huge problem.”

Siefert reports, “They are crossing the highway and getting hit by trucks and cars because they crawl up the rocks and cross the dam. A man was training his lab to catch a duck, and while throwing his decoy for the dog to retrieve, a gator got his dog, drowned it, and ate it, leaving him in utter devastation,” he said. “This has happened multiple times.” Thankfully, no children or humans have been hurt. “Praise God, no, but are we going to wait until something catastrophic happens before something is done?”

Siefert and the five guides who work with him have been on the lake since the 1990s. He has been a fisherman on the lake since he was a child in the 1960s. He said alligators regularly sabotage the trotlines and yoyo fishing efforts. Fishermen have to stay within sight of their gear to try to prevent that from happening.

AGFC research says since 1984, alligator populations in Arkansas have become “stable” enough to support a regulated sport hunt. But now, even with a legal, highly regulated hunt implemented, Siefert, who has volunteered for the AGFC for 30-plus years, emphasizes more may need to be done. “The alligators are at the top of the food chain. One problem combats another with this situation, and there has got to be a balance.” Seifert, along with agencies involved in the care of wildlife management of lakes across South Arkansas, have discussed the possibility of more tags being issued for hunts or pursuing a mass relocation effort to get the population back down to a healthy percentage for the bodies of water.

Over the last ten to 20 years, the population has just exploded. Thirty or 40 alligators can sometimes be counted in one area. Without the nutria consuming the vegetation, when winter hits and the vegetation dies, it creates silt and sedimentation at the bottom of the lake. In the 1990s, the U.S. Geological Survey installed sedimentation stakes in the lakebed and marked them with GPS. When they returned several years later, they could not even find the stakes with GPS technology. The sedimentation occurred at a rate much higher than anticipated, and the study had to be abandoned,” Siefert stated. “The entire ecosystem becomes more and more unbalanced every year.” Millwood Lake fishermen and surrounding residential citizens have called for a solution. Many have suggested the alligators be captured and relocated back to Louisiana, where they aren’t so concentrated. There are teams from Louisiana who bring airboats out to do this for a living.

Keener said the AGFC recently made an agreement with APHIS, the Animal Protection and Health Inspection Service. He said they are working closely with this agency to teach the relocation and capture process. The current alligator sport hunt is the result of a six-year effort by AGFC to offer Arkansans another sport hunting opportunity. A hunter must apply and then be chosen from a drawing to register a tag. Shooting an alligator without the proper registration and training is only legal if it’s in self-defense.

More interest in hunts could mean a push for more tags to be issued. For those who have been considering going on an alligator hunt adventure, learn the procedure and follow regulations. That could be a small part of helping secure a natural habitat and saving an ecosystem or a life.

Hunters looking to bag an alligator in the Natural State may apply for permits for public land hunts from June 15 through June 30 each year.

Click here to visit the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website for more information.


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