By Al Jones/The Sun Herald
GULFPORT — The lower three counties of South Mississippi are home to 38 percent of the state’s alligators.
Harrison and Hancock counties are home to an estimated 13 percent of the Magnolia State’s alligator population and Jackson County is home to 25 percent.
Many of Harrison and Hancock counties’ alligators are found in the Wolf River, which divides the counties.
Ricky Flynt, alligator coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, said the estimated number of alligators in Hancock County is fewer than 5,000 and in Harrison County the number is fewer than 2,000.
Jackson County is home to an estimated 12,500 alligators.
Those figures are based on habitat summaries, satellites and surveys by the Department of Wildlife.
“Not only in terms of the overall numbers, but Jackson and Hancock counties rank as the top two counties for preferred habitat for alligators,” Flynt said. “Harrison County ranks No. 30. That breaks down to 19 percent of the state’s preferred habitat for alligators in those three counties.
“It’s obvious that part of the country has traditionally been home to alligators since any records we have on file. The coastal area has always been part of their natural range. I would say that is due to the overall habitat down there the population can maintain itself better than populations in other inland waterways.”
On a recent MDWFP sanctioned hunt, Lisa A. Pflug was able to kill a 12-foot alligator on the Wolf River.
The hunting crew also included Charles Thompson, Ricky Googins and Rick Googins.
Jackson County may be home to a 1,000-pound alligator in the fertile waters of the Pascagoula River.
“There is no question that the coastal region, especially the Pascagoula River, is home to some of the largest alligators in Mississippi,” Flynt said. “The current state record length of 16 feet, 6 1/2 inches was taken down there. The heaviest one taken (during the 2012 permit hunting season) down there was 636 pounds.
“But I can remember 10 years ago there was an alligator taken off the Pascagoula River near the 1-10 boat ramp that weighed 938 pounds. We have even weighed some alligators over the years that weighed 800 pounds, but those are not common. This year (season ended Sept. 17) we had several 500-pound plus.”
Flynt said it’s possible for Mississippi to produce a 1,000-pound alligator that easily could top 18 feet.
That animal would likely come from the Pascagoula River basin that’s filled with swamp grass, trees, baitfish and other animals.
“I don’t think a 1,000-pound alligator is out of the question,” Flynt said. “But it would be an exceptional animal. I really could see it.
“That area (Pascagoula River) is the most stable gator population in the state. It’s in the most pristine watersheds in North America. There are parts of the Pascagoula that are extremely remote and have been home to big alligators for a long time. I do believe 1,000-pounders could be there.”
Flynt said Mississippi has a solid alligator population of about 50,000, and 25 percent of that total population call the Pascagoula River basin home.
“The Pascagoula has an overall abundant number of alligators, and they are widespread,” Flynt said. “It has a huge amount of food resources between fresh and salt water. Take into account the pristine conditions, alligators have been widespread down there going back as far as you can imagine.”
To control the alligator population, Mississippi adopted a hunting season seven years ago in which tags are awarded through a computer drawing. Each tag holder is allowed to harvest two alligators that are a minimum of 4 feet. Only one, however, can be longer than 7 feet.
The overall numbers and weights are not in for the 2012 season, since Mississippi no longer has alligator check stations. Instead, the state adopted a mandatory online harvest-data collection program in which hunters register the kill and enter the animal’s length, sex, location of kill and hours hunted.
Flynt expects the Pascagoula River to once again produce the so-called trophy alligator, which would top 600 pounds and 10-feet long, despite Hurricane Isaac dropping nearly 20 inches of rainfall on the area during the final weeks of the season.
“Hurricanes and tropical storms do not have any significant impact on alligators,” Flynt said. “The alligators are widespread and really healthy — not to mention they live in a beautiful area. I would not be surprised if we see one (1,000 pounds). The Pascagoula River is one place capable of it.”
Despite the many alligators in South Mississippi, Flynt said alligators are not a direct threat to humans unless an animal is fed by humans on a regular basis.
“First of all, it’s illegal to feed alligators. Period,” Flynt said. “We discourage feeding them by throwing food in the water, and we discourage the use of fish feeders in the area with alligators, They will utilize the food resource and learn to associate with human activity.
“Overall, I think we have a healthy population.”
Despite the large population of alligators in South Mississippi, state wildlife officials say there has never been a reported alligator attack on humans.
“With 38 percent of the population being from down there and to have no attacks is good,” Flynt said. “In fact, we have never had a reported alligator attack on humans in Mississippi. That’s all good.”
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com