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Arkansas alligator hunters vie for special hunting permits

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - Arkansas gators: Look out! Hunters are coming after you.

Arkansas, known for its popular duck and deer hunting seasons, has seen an uptick in alligator hunting interest since an annual legal harvesting season began in 2007.

The deadline to apply for one of only 47 Arkansas gator hunting permits ended Thursday at midnight. The commission received 3,060 applications for the six-night season in September. Hunters will be chosen by a public drawing process and notified by July 15.

"Since it's a small pool, I get to call each one of the guys personally to tell them they made it," said Rick Chastain, assistant chief of wildlife for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

"They whoop and holler because not everyone gets to do it."

The Arkansas alligator population declined during the 1960s because of illegal hunting. The scarcity of alligators throughout the South landed them on the endangered species list in the early 1970s.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began a program to stock 2,800 alligators on private and public lands. The alligators sustained themselves in great enough numbers that in some places they became a nuisance for property owners. That problem was one reason the state created a hunting season.

Over the last 10 years, more Southern states, such as South Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia, have also started alligator hunting programs.

For six weekend nights in September from 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise, hunters cruise the darkened Arkansas waters with spotlights searching for the big creatures' shining red eyes.

AVOID BEING EATEN

"You're in a boat, out of your comfort zone, looking at that dark, murky water," said Brad Fausett, a life-long hunter who has applied for a permit this year.

"The unknown is the thrill until you see a huge one. Then you spend forever trying to get close, not spook it, and not get eaten. When you get him next to the boat, the sheer size is overwhelming."

An alligator must be at least four feet long to harvest by hand-held weapons such as snares or harpoons.

Once captured, an alligator can be shot.

Only one alligator per permit is allowed because of the state's low gator population compared to coastal areas of Louisiana, Texas or Florida. Hunters must also attend a hunting orientation prior to the season to learn the rules.

Chastain said each season's success depends on climate conditions. The two legal hunting zones in southern Arkansas currently have flood waters and drought simultaneously. But it's unclear, Chastain said, how that will impact the upcoming season except to make alligators more spread out in a zone.

Last year, Arkansas saw a record-setting season with 36 alligators killed in the two zones. A record-setting 13-foot, 680-pound 30-year-old alligator was caught on private land in southeast Arkansas last season.

"It's a sport that attracts a certain kind of hunter, and they seem to be doing pretty good at it judging by the numbers," Chastain said.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)

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