Texas' gator capital takes a hit

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

But not this year, not with 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.

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 gator-themed souvenir store was torn off.

Normally, hundreds of folks head to town during gator 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 marshes in search of a big capture.

The annual GatorFest – complete with 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 20 hunts he was to lead, estimating he lost 75 percent of revenues from alligator endeavors. “It's going to be a loss, but I was able to salvage some of the season,” he 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 Tim Cooper of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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.