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Don’t Count ’em Out

Hurricane Ike dealt a violent blow to Texas’ alligators—but with a little help, they’ll be back

I stank of mosquito repellent and fear. The hot summer night creaked like an old rocking chair, soothing me with the sweet music of crickets rising from Salt Bayou.

Stars shimmered in a moonless sky the color of dark-blue denim.

The airboat slid off the trailer into the brown-green water. Reality sank in. In just a few minutes, I’d be boarding the boat, skimming through the swampy unknown south of Port Arthur on the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area.

June 17, 2009

Night of the dark moon. Night of alligators.

And I was here to help count them. I stared down at my jeans stuffed into my black, rubber wading boots. I wore them on the orders of Amos Cooper, head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) alligator program and assistant area manager for Murphree.

“We might have to get out of the boat,” he said. “You never know. Just be prepared.”

I shuddered at the thought of actually needing my boots to wade through the marshy bayou—or worse yet, kicking them off if I had to swim—if we somehow fell off the narrow boat or flipped or got stuck in the mud or alligators sprang from the darkness to attack us en masse. But I bit my tongue and silently watched Cooper and Monique Slaughter, his partner in the alligator program and a fellow biologist, hook two spotlights to the airboat’s battery.

The more gators we see tonight, the better. Hurricane Ike brutalized the upper Texas Gulf Coast in 2008, killing or relocating hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of alligators with its storm surge. Alligator biologists such as the 52-year-old Cooper are calling it the worst displacement of gators they’ve seen in their lifetimes.

Cooper started the airboat, its single-propeller airplane engine sputtering to life. “You want to see something?” he yelled. “Get on the boat right here.”

“Look,” Cooper said excitedly, shining the spotlight over the water. “See all those eyes?”

I gasped. Multiple pairs of alligator eyes burned like orange embers in the blackness. I made an unintelligible sound, like that of a scared animal. “Oh, Amos, I don’t know about this.”

He laughed. “They can’t hurt us. How are they going to get up here?”

I could think of a thousand ways, but I kept my mouth shut. Cooper climbed into the 6-foot-high driver’s seat.

Slaughter pushed us off and sat beside me. “At some point,” she said, casually, “we’re going to jump a levee, so you’ll want to hold on.”

“Uh, OK …” I replied, confused, checking that my brown life vest was securely buckled and pulling my plastic eye goggles and hearing-protection earmuffs into place.

Suddenly, Slaughter was yelling “HANG ON!” I desperately clawed at the two-person bench seat. “I DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE ABOUT TO DOOOOOOO …” I screamed as the airboat, its engine whirring like a giant blender, hit the levee, lurching side to side like a writhing earthworm in a blur of grass and sky. “WE’RE JUMPING A LEVEE! WE’RE JUMPING A LEVEE!” I blathered like a mad woman into my tape recorder.

This was a rollercoaster ride without the hydraulic safety harness, an airboat with no seatbelts. But this was no joy ride: We’re countin’ gators.

‘It was sink or swim’

September 13, 2008. Hurricane Ike slams into the Texas coast. Alligators are flushed out of their dens. Some swim. Some drown. Some are washed out to sea. Some are washed inland. Frogs, turtles, river otters, skunks, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, possums, salamanders, snakes, spiders and lizards are swept away.

And when the winds depart, the saltwater stays—for days, for weeks, for months, contaminating the soil, crippling an entire ecosystem and jeopardizing an already threatened coastal prairie.

In the eerie aftermath of the storm, when all is silent and not a single frog sings, the depth of the damage becomes clear.

“We have to assume that everything that walks, crawls or slithers drowned because it couldn’t tolerate saltwater or it got washed inland,” said Jim Sutherlin, the Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project leader for TPWD and area manager for Murphree. “It was sink or swim—if you can imagine how deep the floodwater was, you can imagine a lot of sinkers.”

It was easy to imagine at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, a member of the Texas Chenier Plain Refuges Complex that boasted thousands of alligators before Ike hit.

Seven months after the storm, the refuge, in many ways, resembled a cemetery. Some trees, brown and stooped, looked dead. I saw no turtles, no snakes, heard no frogs. The interior marshes, their soil still clogged with salt, lay dry in the throes of a drought. And I spotted one alligator—a scrawny 6-footer dozing on the bank of a canal.

Viewing Anahuac as a microcosm for wildlife displacement along the coast, I had one main question: Where did all the alligators go?

“They went anywhere the water took them,” Cooper said. “As long as it was a freshwater pond, you found alligators.”

But in their natural habitats, they were virtually nowhere to be seen. In early July, TPWD conducted its annual nest survey, flying north to south over transect lines in Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties—the primary habitat for Texas alligators—by helicopter to determine the state’s official population. The results were significantly lower than expected: an estimated 24 nests, compared with 128 last year and 278 in 2007.

At first glance—based on TPWD’s complex population estimate model that includes 35 eggs per clutch, life expectancy, size and average population trends—it appeared that Texas’ alligator numbers within their primary habitat had taken almost a 90 percent nose dive, from an estimated quarter million last year to about 32,000.

But, Cooper cautioned, “It doesn’t mean they’re not there, it just means they’re not nesting.” Gators, he explained, are stressed from overexposure to saltwater. Dehydrated and weak, many gators didn’t breed in the spring and the females didn’t build nests.

The alligator population, Cooper said, is “going to bounce back, but we don’t know when or to what extent.”

Catching a gator

Out in Salt Bayou, we’re winding through canals, one so narrow that the tall grass on its banks brushes the boat. We slow down, speed up, slow down, speed up, the soft kuh-kuh-kuh of the engine harmonizing with the crickets whenever we come to a complete stop.

Eyes in the water ahead shine like orange headlights on an alligator highway. The eyes glow, then go, as most of the gators sink beneath the surface as we approach. But some, curious, stay up, swimming beside or in front of the boat as Cooper, who has swapped places with Slaughter so he can record notes on the clipboard in his lap, maintains a running commentary: “He’s about 6 feet … that’s an 8-footer there … Now that’s a horse!”

And with that said, the biggest gator of the night, a 10-to-11-footer, silently glides away.

Then one of my nightmares comes true: We get stuck on top of a levee. Cooper, clenching his pencil between his teeth, jumps off, running back and forth in front of the boat, pushing it on one side and then the other, trying to spin it into the water. Convinced that gators are about to board the boat at any second, I’m screaming like an idiot: “WHAT ARE WE DOING?”

The boat goes spinning into the canal from whence we came, and I make a horrid discovery: Cooper is not sitting beside me. He’s standing on top of the levee. Alone. In the dark. We go roaring back up the levee, slow down, and Cooper jumps on. He’s not breathing hard. I am. “Were you afraid an alligator was going to get you?”

“No,” he says, laughing easily. “They’re not aggressive like crocodiles.”

The night crescendos in a quiet canal. We stop, and Cooper stands. “Amos, what are you doing?” I ask, alarmed. He ignores me. Again clenching the pencil between his teeth, he drops to his hands and knees, then his belly, wiggling to the front of the boat. He reaches his gloved hands over the edge and, without warning, yanks a 3-foot-long gator out of the water.

Slaughter jumps down from the driver’s seat. “There’ll be tape in the first-aid kit,” she matter-of-factly says. They wrap white tape around the gator’s snout, slip him inside a blue nylon bag like a pair of shoes and zip it shut.

After the count—which yielded a surprisingly high 49 gators in Compartment 12, the section of the wildlife management area that we canvassed—Cooper says he’s taking the gator to Port Arthur’s First Baptist Church on Saturday for a live demonstration. The kids will love it. Then, he’ll return the gator to the bayou.

I chicken out on holding the little gator. But with Slaughter clutching him, I stroke his surprisingly soft and slippery belly and touch one of his dangling feet.

I have high hopes for this little guy. Years from now, I see him swimming and hunting in the lush-green grass and fresh water of the bayou. I see him growing big and strong. Big enough to weather any storm.