WEST PALM BEACH — The American alligator, the unofficial symbol of Florida, can elicit reactions from fascination to revulsion among a population of humans that continue to encroach onto its habitat.
On Wednesday, officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission came to West Palm Beach asking to hear more. They are on a 14-stop tour of the state designed to get feedback from the public on what to do about the reptiles.
The comments will be considered when making a recommendation to the commission's board in June on whether to make the first major changes to the alligator management program in its 20-year history.
The changes first proposed in December included downgrading alligators from a "species of special concern" to "game;" allowing homeowners to deal with alligators themselves, possibly paying a private trapper to remove an alligator instead of calling the state's nuisance alligator hot line; and establishing a statewide hunting season.
"One thing we're clearly hearing is the education component," program coordinator Harry Dutton said. "There needs to be more public awareness and education."
None of the ideas proposed earlier has been thrown out based on what he's heard during public meetings, he added.
Once listed as an endangered species, alligators now number more than a million in Florida. They still fall under federal protection because they resemble the endangered American crocodile. As their population has grown, and in the wake of an unprecedented three fatal attacks last year, complaints have increased to an average of 18,000 annually.
"They're thriving," Dutton said. "The population is not exploding. It's considered stable based on our extensive data."
Gary Ingram traveled from Lake Placid, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, to attend. He suggested having trappers visit schools for educational talks, and starting a large-scale campaign, possibly handing out pamphlets with driver licenses at the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles.
"The ignorance of the public is amazing," Ingram said. "If someone is buying property on a canal or a lake, they'll call and say, 'hey, there's an alligator.''"
Most of the 15 people in attendance were hunters, though Wednesday's meeting was geared toward the public. Another meeting scheduled for today is aimed at getting feedback from guides and hunters.
One woman said she opposed public hunting. Tightly controlled alligator hunting in designated areas has been allowed in Florida since 1988.
"Reduce public hunting, no way," said Doug Sharp, president of the Florida Sportsmen's Conservation Association. "You'd have alligators crawling the streets of West Palm Beach."
Despite the low turnout, Dutton said the information gathered is useful. He suspects the commission's board will ask his staff to tour the state again after the meeting in June to make sure everyone understands what, if anything, the commission intends to do.
But it could be as long as a year before anything changes. "There's going to be ample opportunity to keep involved in the process," he said. "We want to get it right, and we value your input."