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Gators in the Rio Grande Valley? Who knew?

by Associated Press

Posted on February 2, 2010 at 4:01 PM

HARLINGEN, Texas -- The Rio Grande Valley boasts balmy weather, pristine beaches, succulent citrus—and gators.

But the Valley does have gators, dozens of them. Just how many?

Even the experts dont know for certain.

Nor is there a consensus on how they got here.

Pat Burchfield, director of Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, is considered an expert on alligators. His research has found no references to them by early Valley settlers.

"Ive reviewed documents on early commerce on the Rio Grande and there was a fairly active trade in beaver pelts," he said. "If there had been alligators, they would have been part of that commerce."

It wasnt until the 20th century that references to alligators are found.

"I can tell you this much, pilots in the 1970s would regularly see alligators on the Rio Grande," said Burchfield, noting gators were also seen near a Union Carbide plant on the ship channel and a couple in Bayview.

He believes at least some of the alligators were once pets that were released.

"Now, I think baby alligators are cute and people pick them up as pets—but when they start getting bitten, they turn them loose," he said.

But, notes Burchfield, some Valley alligators are likely here naturally.

Brian Henley, supervisor of herpetology at the zoo, noted that the Lower Valley is unique in that the gator population here is isolated from the rest of the state.

"The big spot where the alligator population drops off is around Corpus Christi. Thats where the population tends to end, then they pop up here," he said.

Are Valley gators here naturally?

"Theres a chance that there is a small naturally occurring population here," he noted. "Gators can stand salt water and its possible a small population moved down here (via the Laguna Madre)."

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge no longer conducts an alligator census, but refuge manager Sony Perez said there are several permanent gator residents.

At Alligator Pond, there was a large one, more than 12 feet long, but the pond went dry in the summer and the gator moved to the nearby lake that the refuge is named after.

Alligator numbers fluctuate at the refuge.

"When we go through a severe drought, we might see 10 or 12, but when water is plentiful, close to 100 are reported."

There are a few ranches in Cameron County that also have alligators in their resacas or ponds.

There are even two alligators at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center boardwalk wetlands.

While the vast majority of Valley gators live in eastern Cameron County, there are a few in Hidalgo County.

Martha Gonzalez, manager at Estero Llano Grande State Park in south Weslaco, said the park has two adults and three juveniles after a young gator was recently released at the park.

She estimates the adult male is 12 feet long and the female "probably about 10 feet."

"They are not here naturally," she said, noting they were relocated to the park from another pond in Hidalgo County.

She said park visitors have never reported any close calls with the big adults.

"The alligators keep to themselves. They used to sun on the side of Alligator Lake where the trail is, but as more and more people came, they moved to the other side of the lake," she said.

"We monitor them closely, especially if we do any kind of maintenance close to the water. Usually, if visitors get close to the bank, they will move away," Gonzalez said.

Nuisance alligators that get too close to populated areas are relocated by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department law enforcement officers.

Its been estimated by TP&WD that 120 of the states 254 counties have alligator populations, but there is no estimate to the number of the reptiles in the state.

There has never been a documented fatal attack by an alligator in Texas. In Florida, where the vast majority of attacks have occurred, as of December 2008 there have been 30 deaths attributed to alligators in 100 years.

According to the National Geographic Web site, the largest American alligator ever reported was 19.8 feet long. There are doubts about that claim, however.

It doesnt seem possible that a part of the country with frequent droughts and few wetlands would have alligators.