Thursday, July 23, 2015

2015 Alligator Season Causes Confusion for Some Alabama Hunters

by David Rainer

To quote the warden in “Cool Hand Luke,” the classic Paul Newman movie, “What we have here is failure to commun’cate.”

Despite the best efforts of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and its Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) to explain the changes for the selection process for the 2015 alligator season, a bit of confusion remains.

Before the 2015 season, the draw process for the alligator tags was strictly a “luck of the draw” proposition. It didn’t matter how many times you were drawn or not drawn, the process was blind to previous seasons.

Obviously, people who watched as certain “lucky” individuals seemed to get tags regularly while they were left out were understandably upset.

That is why a weighted preference-points system was instituted this year. Results from the 2014 draw were entered into the system. Those who applied in 2014 and weren’t drawn received one point.

However, if those individuals were not drawn again this year, their chances of being drawn in 2016 and later years increased exponentially.

WFF Wildlife Biologist and Alligator Program Coordinator Chris Nix said there was a misunderstanding about how the preference-points system works.

“Even though the people who weren’t drawn in 2014 have a preference point, it’s still just one preference point,” Nix said. “What we need to do is really explain the preference-points system and how it will work in future years. It’s not a quick fix. There is no way we can fix it in one year, but the strides we’ve made should resolve the problem in future years.”

Nix said the way the system works, starting with the 2014 season, is to take the number of years the individual has applied and not been drawn and cube it.

In other words, one preference point cubed is still one. However, if that individual was not drawn again in 2015, then you take two points and cube that to equal eight preference points and then add one for that year’s application for a total of nine points for the 2016 drawing.

When it’s time to draw the tags, the system is set up for two draws. The first draw, which accounts for 85 percent of the tags, will come from those applicants with preference points. The remaining 15 percent of the tags will be pulled from the non-preference-points pool.

“For the people who have not drawn a tag, we’re trying to give them an upper hand, giving them better odds of pulling an alligator tag,” Nix said. “We can’t do that exclusively. We still have to give people who are putting an application in for the first time an opportunity to draw.

“Each preference point is like having another entry into the drawing. But that one is not going to make as big a difference as they would in three years. Then they would have 28 points. It accumulates at a very quick rate. If people are patient, in three to four years, it’s almost a guarantee that they will draw a tag.”

There is one caveat that everyone who wants to participate in the alligator season must be aware of – the only way to keep preference points is to apply for a tag each year.

“If you apply for three years and for some reason you don’t put in that fourth year, you lose all the preference points you had accumulated,” Nix said.

“We have tried to make this process as fair as possible,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes. “We feel this system will provide all Alabama gator hunters with the best opportunity to successfully draw a tag. Unfortunately, there were a few hunters who assumed they would automatically get a tag if they were unsuccessful in drawing one last year. Well, you know the old saying about what happens when you assume something.

“The only other issue I have seen is people not being able to attend the mandatory training class. I really hate it for the hunters who successfully draw a permit but have a conflict and can’t attend. But, it plainly states on the website at registration that all hunters must attend the training class in the area where the tag was drawn – and the dates are given. We had roughly 4,000 hunters apply to receive one of the 260 tags.  That is approximately a seven-percent chance at drawing a tag. So, there will be a few alternates this year who will be ecstatic that someone had a conflict and could not attend the class.”

This year, another change is that Lake Eufaula will have its own separate zone. In past years, most hunters selected for the Southeast Zone traveled to Lake Eufaula in their quest to harvest an alligator. In an effort to better distribute this harvest pressure throughout the Southeast Zone and to more closely manage the Lake Eufaula population, the Lake Eufaula Zone was established.  The Southeast Zone hunters will have the option to either pursue their gators on private lands (with landowner permission) or on the various rivers such as the Pea and Choctawhatchee that occur in that zone.

“We continue to observe and survey the populations of each zone annually,” Nix said. “Due to the data we received, we broke out Lake Eufaula to protect and enhance that particular zone. Twenty tags are what we felt comfortable with for Lake Eufaula. And there is an 8-foot length restriction on Lake Eufaula in order to protect the females in that population.”

Lake Eufaula hunters can pursue gators during daytime and nighttime hours from sunset on August 14 to sunrise on October 5. Only nighttime hunting is allowed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the remaining zones. Lake Eufaula Zone encompasses the public Alabama state waters only in the Walter F. George Reservoir (Lake Eufaula) and its navigable tributaries, south of Hwy 208 (Omaha Bridge). This zone excludes the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.

The Southeast Zone (excluding Lake Eufaula and its associated tributaries) includes the private and public waters in Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Russell counties. This zone will have 40 tags for 2015.

There are no length limits on any area except for the Lake Eufaula Zone.

Again this year, the Southwest Zone will have the most tags, 150. The Southwest Zone includes the private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke, and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84.

The West Central Zone, where Mandy Stokes’ world-record gator of 15 feet, 11 inches was taken last year, will again have 50 tags. The West Central Zone includes the private and public waters in Monroe (north of U.S. Highway 84), Wilcox and Dallas counties.

Successful applicants will be required to attend and complete the Alligator Training Course, provided by the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries staff, associated with the zone where the tag was drawn. After completion of the course, drawn applicants will be eligible for an Alligator Possession Tag.

For the Southwest Alabama zone, the course will be held twice on July 25 at the Five Rivers complex in Spanish Fort, Ala. The first class will be from 10 a.m. until noon. The second class will be from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

For the Southeast Alabama and Lake Eufaula zones, the course will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on Aug. 8 at the Chamber of Commerce Office in Eufaula, Ala.

The course for the West Central Zone will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on Aug. 1 at the Central Alabama Farmers Co-Op in Selma, Ala.

Those who are selected for the Southwest Alabama hunt and have attended the course at Five Rivers as a permittee or alternate in prior years may be exempted from this requirement. All others will be required to attend this year’s class at Five Rivers in Spanish Fort. If you were selected for the West Central Alabama hunt and have attended the course at the Central Alabama Farmer’s Co-Op in Selma as a permittee or alternate in prior years, you may be exempted from this requirement. All others will be required to attend and complete this year’s class at Alabama Farmers Co-Op in Selma.

Nix said individuals drawn in one zone cannot attend the Alligator Training Course for another zone.

“It’s very specific,” he said. “You must attend the training class for the area where the tag was drawn.

“This year, we’ve added an alligator training video. There is a link on the page when the hunter accepted their tag. We encourage hunters and alternates to watch the video before attending their training classes.”