They are the symbol of the Everglades, the animal that for decades most tourists have anticipated seeing during a visit to the national park.
But the alligators that inhabit the Everglades are showing signs of serious trouble. Their population has dropped, and the ones that are still around tend to look starved.
Did invading pythons eat their lunch? Did they get into some bad sushi? No, the answer is more complicated, according to veteran biologist Frank Mazzotti — and it bodes ill for the Everglades as a whole.
Alligators have been called "the buffalo of the Everglades." They are an indicator of the overall health of the River of Grass. If they're not doing well, said Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor who has spent decades studying them, then neither is the Everglades.
Mazzotti is part of a team of biologists who have been trying to figure out what's afflicting them. The problem is the water — not the pollution in it, but the quantity of it, he said.
"That is the primary factor," he said.
In the rest of Florida, alligators are doing fine. Once considered an imperiled species, now state officials estimate there may be more than a million of them — although, as Mazzotti noted, "Who's going to count that?"
There are enough that they sometimes wander out of their lakes and marshes and show up on doorsteps and at picnics, in one case even biting the bumper of a police car.
Because of the alligator population boom, state wildlife officials have set up a network of freelance trappers to catch any that wander into a suburb and cause problems. It's called the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program — SNAP for short.
But the gator tale is very different in the Everglades.
Starting in 1948, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building a series of canals, levees and pumps that altered the natural flow of water, all in the name of controlling flooding along the rapidly developing coast.
That flood control system "disrupted the natural wet and dry pattern of the Everglades," Mazzotti said. And that was bad for alligators, and other species as well, because it disrupted the normal pattern for the fish that they usually eat.''
Normally there are times when the Everglades would be flooded and times when it would dry up. When it dried up, the water that was left would be concentrated in small areas, and so would the fish. During those dry times, the gators gorged on the fish "like shoppers on Black Friday," Mazzotti said.
So did the Everglades' wading birds — the herons, the egrets, the roseate spoonbills and wood storks. With the fish penned into smaller areas, food was easier for them to find, too.
But since the corps began manipulating the water levels, that's changed, a fact acknowledged by the corps' own scientists. Now there are fewer dry periods and the gators have to work a lot harder to get something to eat.
The wood storks and other wading birds can simply fly away to somewhere that offers better prey, Mazzotti said, but the alligators are stuck trying to eke out an existence without sufficient food. That affects both their body size and their population size.
Bigger is better
Nobody knows how many alligators there might be in the Everglades, Mazzotti said. In fact, Larry Perez of Everglades National Park said that in looking over 14 years of the park's data, they have not seen the decline that Mazzotti and his colleagues reported.
Mazzotti's team, which has been gathering data for a decade, count how many alligators they encounter within a kilometer, and the number they encounter in the Everglades is half what they'd find north of the River of Grass, he said.
"What we want are more alligators, and fatter alligators," he said.
Getting back in synch
Bringing the gators back from the brink of disappearing means bringing back the historic pattern of the ebb and flow of the River of Grass south of Lake Okeechobee, said Gina Paduano Ralph, chief of the corps' restoration and resources section.
That's the goal of the multibillion-dollar Everglades restoration project that Congress and the Florida Legislature approved in 2000. Mazzotti said monitoring the alligators' potential comeback would be one way to determine if the restoration project is successful.
But the Everglades project is already years behind schedule and the price tag has ballooned. One segment of the plan is focused exclusively on fixing the flow from Lake Okeechobee into the central Everglades, which would provide the greatest benefit to the park's alligator population. That segment's estimated price tag recently climbed by about $100 million to nearly $2 billion.
The state and federal government are splitting the cost, and so far Congress has not authorized spending any money building the central Everglades project, Ralph said. She would not speculate as to when Congress might take that step, but noted that it would be done as part of the recurring Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA for short.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Congress would pass a WRDA bill every two years to pay for various corps projects. But then the flow of money dried up just like the Everglades. Congress passed a WRDA in 2000, then waited until 2007 for another one. It passed one earlier this year, raising the specter of a long, long wait for the last of the starving gators for any help from Washington.
In the meantime, Mazzotti said, even the tourists have figured out that the alligators aren't around the way they used to be. "These days," he said, "the visitors to the park are asking to see the pythons."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @craigtimes