After two years of arguments, protests and environmental analysis, hunters will arrive Friday, Aug. 15 at the Loxahatchee (Fla.) National Wildlife Refuge to start killing alligators.
Eleven hunters have won a lottery in which 1,203 people applied for permits to take two alligators each in the refuge, a vast sweep of swamp and forest that runs west of U.S. 441 from Boca Raton to Wellington. Working primarily at night, they will be allowed to use harpoons, spear guns, crossbows and other means to catch the alligator, killing it with a bang stick, a pole that discharges a shotgun shell or bullet into the reptile's brain.
When the hunters arrive Friday -- and many may not, since the hunt runs through October -- they will be greeted by protesters from the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, one of several groups that had written letters in opposition to the hunt.
"It's not a refuge if there's state-sponsored animal-killing going on there," said Don Anthony, spokesman for the group. "These animals are harpooned, stabbed, or hooked and never die a quick or painless death. It's a bloody, violent and unnecessary activity in what should be a park that all Florida taxpayers can enjoy."
Rolf Olson, project leader at Loxahatchee, defended the hunt as the pursuit of a traditional activity at wildlife refuges that goes back to President Theodore Roosevelt, a hunter himself who established the nation's first national wildlife refuge in 1903. And hunting is not new to Loxahatchee, he said, which has long allowed duck hunting.
He said the alligator population at Loxahatchee is abundant, with a recent survey at one canal in the hunt area finding 134 of them.
"We've done a lot of surveying and monitoring of the alligator population," he said. "We have enough alligators that we can have a harvest without affecting the total alligator population."
He said the protesters were welcome to express their opinions at the refuge, so long as they didn't interfere with the hunt.
"They have a First Amendment right to do that," he said. "We will have a First Amendment area and they will be able to protest and speak their minds. As long as they don't violate the law, they're allowed to be in the area."
He said the First Amendment area will not be hidden away and that any hunters arriving will see the protesters.
The protest is planned at the refuge's south entrance on Loxahatchee Road, six miles west of 441, not the visitor's entrance on 441.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the final decision on the hunt in March, as part of a general expansion of hunting at national wildlife refuges. Although the initial number of permits is small, the refuge has said the hunt may be expanded if all goes smoothly and it has little impact on the alligator population.
The refuge will have law enforcement officers from both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to supervise the hunt. Although only 11 people were issued permits, he said they are free to bring people with them to assist in the hunt.
The hunt is timed so that few if any visitors to the refuge will encounter any hunters, Olson said. It will take place Friday and Saturday nights, with hunters allowed in an hour before sunset until an hour after sunrise.
"The majority of the hunters will be there when no one else is out there," he said.
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