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Foraging gators may force refuge to close to people

Their mucky holes dried out, alligators are lining canal banks by the dozens and managers soon might have to close off this refuge to humans. "Even though there's some water in the refuge, there's not anything to eat," senior biologist Mark Maffei said. "They're moving out to the canals to try to find something."

Airboat paths also are drying out.

"This week will probably be the last week we can take people out," Maffei said. "There's a lot of it that's dried out. The wildlife is suffering."

The alligators, their food supplies of bass and gar gone with the water, are moving out of their home turfs, rises of muck around water holes.

"The gators know where to go," Maffei said.

Unless there are unexpected, drought-ending rains, hundreds more alligators will be heading toward the water of the canals that rim the Loxahatchee refuge, southeast of Lake Okeechobee. Last year, the refuge was closed June 20, but it almost certainly will be shut sooner this year as the gators converge on fishing areas, said Maffei and Burkett Neely, refuge manager.

"Alligators and people don't mix," said Allan Flock, assistant refuge manager. "The alligators catch on to the fishermen pulling fish out real quick. They follow the boats around, they congregate around bank fishermen, and you can't get away from them.

"We've had gators trying to get in boats."

As they crowd in on each other, the alligators will begin fighting among themselves. As competition intensifies for prey, they will attack the nearest living thing.

The drought problems are worsened by regional water managers' continued back-pumping practices. Water is taken out of the refuge and stored in Lake Okeechobee for urban and agricultural needs.

The alternative, they say, is to risk irreversible pollution of urban water wells during the drought.