Florida relies on specially-licensed trappers to remove nuisance alligators, but the unique program could collapse as the hide market plummets.

A pillar of Old Florida’s swamp economy is drying up as prices plummet for wild alligator hide – a market downturn with repercussions for trappers as well as the state’s swelling suburbia.


For 40 years, state-contracted nuisance alligator hunters have answered the call to wrangle the iconic reptiles when one gets too close for comfort. They do it because their daddies did it, because it’s a lifestyle, because it’s a public service.


But the once self-sustaining industry where trappers sold the skins to pay for their efforts has been shattered, in part, by the caprice of the fashion industry and ire of animal rights activists, according to hunters and a leading wildlife ecologist.


With the support of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the trappers are asking this year for an increase in their per-animal stipend from $30 to $50.


It’s an estimated annual hike in the stipend budget of $390,000 — an 85 percent increase from the previous earmark. Trappers began getting the $30 stipend in 2004.


While not enough to make a living, an increase would help pay for gas, said Robb Upthegrove, a Plant City resident and FWC contract trapper.


“I’ve had traps where the alligator pulled it down 15 times and you have to go back and reset it 15 times,” Upthegrove, 63, said. “It’s a whole lot of leg work and sometimes you go out and there isn’t even an alligator, it’s a frog.”


Upthegrove recently sold five alligators for $233.


“Before, you could make that off of one,” he said.


Gators are federally protected but the state can manage their population


The American alligator is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under its Threatened Due to Similarity of Appearance classification because it looks so much like the American crocodile, which is federally listed as threatened.


This listing provides federal protection for alligators but allows the state to manage alligator populations.


That means Floridians can't just call up a local trapper to remove a troublemaker alligator like they can a raccoon or iguana.


Instead, the FWC operates the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, where people call to report a suspicious gator. The FWC decides whether the gator poses a risk and will then assign a trapper that it contracts with and licenses.


There are an estimated 1.3 million alligators in Florida — a symbol of successful restoration of a species that was near extinction in the 1950s after a demand for alligator hides led to an uncontrolled slaughter.


Nuisance gator program began in 1977


But the increase in gators and influx of humans wanting to live on former swamp land meant more human-reptile interaction. By 1975, it was costing the FWC $250,000 per year to respond to nuisance alligator complaints, according to a 1989 report cited by the Fourth Eastern Wildlife Damage Control Conference.


An experimental nuisance alligator program encompassing 11 counties began in 1977. That year, 535 gators were harvested by trappers.


Last year, 8,972 nuisance alligators were removed statewide by FWC’s 103 contract trappers. Between 2009 and 2018, the average number of alligators taken per year was 7,324.


Ricky Kramer, a trapper whose area includes Palm Beach County, said he catches about 400 nuisance gators per year.


“For me, it’s family tradition. My dad started with the program as one of the first trappers,” said Kramer, 50. “I love what I do. There are times when you have to take the good with the bad, and it hasn’t been too good in years.”


Kramer remembers earning $60 a foot for wild alligator hide at the peak of the market. Now, he said he makes $10 to $25 depending on length.


“It’s been harsh,” said Julie Harter, an FWC-licensed nuisance trapper, about the drop in prices. “My tax lady asks me every year why I’m doing this, but I like trapping. It’s a lifestyle now.”


Harter, a 57-year-old retired teacher who also works full time helping special needs adults, said she catches about 200 alligators per year. But to nab them, she has to make more than 1,000 house calls where someone has complained about a nuisance gator.


In 2018, there were 14,739 nuisance gator permits issued by the state where a trapper had to make contact with a person who lodged a complaint. About 45 percent of those contacts ended with no gator being caught.


“It’s a lot of repeat calls back and forth and back and forth,” Harter said. “At least an increase in stipend might help us offset our fuel costs.”


People want pristine gator skins, not ones with scars


Part of the blame for the tanking wild gator hide market is the fashion appeal of pristine skins that come from gator farms. Wild gators are more likely to have scars or hides tarnished by weather.


Brian Wood, 62, owner of All American Gator in Dania Beach, started buying nuisance gators from trappers in the late 1980s. He paid up to $40 per foot and resold the skins to fashion giants such as Hermes, Gucci and Prada.


But his high-end buyers have since invested in their own alligator and crocodile farms where they get perfect skins at lower prices, he said.


“The market really started to decline three years ago and it’s progressively getting worse,” said Wood, who no longer buys the nuisance gators. “I know people who are sitting on hundreds of hides.”


Another dent in the market was made by animal rights activists promoting the use of fake hides, said University of Florida wildlife ecology professor Frank Mazzotti.


Louisiana filed a lawsuit in December against California because of a ban on importing and selling alligator products that was scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. A federal judge placed a temporary hold on the ban that Louisiana officials said would “devastate Louisiana’s lucrative alligator product industry.”


PETA says the writing is on the wall to ban exotic skins


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supported the ban.


“As major designers and retailers — including Chanel, Diane von Furstenberg, H&M, Victoria Beckham, and others — are banning exotic skins, the writing is on the wall: It's 2020 and time to find a line of work that doesn't involve killing of wildlife and trying to peddle their unwanted skins,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman.


Mazzotti said the concern is misplaced.


“The commercialization of these animals has been the single largest factor responsible for conserving them over the past two decades,” he said. “Done correctly, it brings benefits to ecosystems and makes people safe.”


With no market for gator skins, Mazzotti said Florida may need to start a salaried-type program for alligator trappers as it has for python hunters. Under the South Florida Water Management District’s python program, hunters earn $8.46 to $15 per hour to hunt the invasive snake, plus bonuses based on length.


Mazzotti fears the nuisance alligator program could collapse without better pay for trappers.


“Florida has set the example for how to do something sustainably,” Mazzotti said. “It has been such a positive story and that success story would be jeopardized.”


Kmiller@pbpost.com


@Kmillerweather