5) Prohibit the sale or offering for sale of alligator products in the state.
Whether Senator Henderson will get the federal help he hopes for has been made dubious by a letter Senator Ray C. Knopke, chairman of the Florida Senate's Committee on Natural Resources and Conservation, received April 22. It was from J.P. Linduska, associate director of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, and in part it read:
"We believe that prohibiting the sale of alligator skins or products is neither warranted nor wise. Under good management, the alligator can be prolific and become too abundant. Removal by lawful means is necessary in some places even now. There is no good purpose served in denying the rational use of a valuable product of nature."
Linduska did concede that poaching is a "problem" and recommended that "every possible effort should be made to suppress it." But if it were truly suppressed there would be no need for a law prohibiting the sale of alligator skins or products, since virtually every alligator skin sold or processed now is taken illegally. Practical experience has pretty well established that suppression of poaching is all but impossible without federal laws containing teeth. If poaching is thus suppressed and the gators really do become "too abundant" it would be a simple matter to harvest the surplus.
At present there are 16 bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and three in the Senate which deal with endangered species of wildlife and contain provisions to improve protection of the alligator. One House bill, co-sponsored by all members of the House Subcommittee for Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation, calls for fines of up to $10,000 or one year in prison or both.
Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel, and his predecessor, Stewart L. Udall, both have asked for stronger legislation to protect endangered species. Returning from a trip to the Everglades not too long ago, Secretary Hickel urged "stiffer penalties for the interstate trafficking in hides from illegally taken alligators."
Conservationists in Washington have high hopes that some kind of bill for protection of endangered species, including alligators, will come out of this Congress. Little opposition has been voiced anywhere.
The last open alligator-hunting season in Florida was 1959-60, when 18,735 alligators more than six feet long were sold to hide dealers. Mere illegality has not significantly reduced that number, if at all, and the black-market price has risen.
There are those who do not like the alligator and would feel no pang if he should vanish utterly, but in fact he is vitally useful, however ugly, to the ecology of such areas as the Everglades. During drought the only water in the swamps may be found in gator holes—ponds which he makes himself. As the water level drops, the alligator digs deep, using his powerful tail, his hind feet and his mouth, eventually providing a haven of scarce water for birds, animals and game fish. When the drought ends they scatter over the swamps, their lives saved by the alligator. Some of them, to be sure, will have been eaten by the gator, who feeds on fish, turtles, snakes, wading birds and water plants. And, of course, marshmallows and ice-cream bars. Just about anything, in fact. But he does more good than harm.
There was a time, nearly 200 years ago, when William Bartram, describing a Florida river, could truthfully write: "The alligators were in such incredible numbers, and so close together from shore to shore, that it would have been easy to have walked across on their heads, had the animals been harmless."