State wildlife officials want to learn more about the Oklahoma alligator.
The The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Department recently announced its partnership with Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant and Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, on a two-year research study of alligators in southeastern Oklahoma.
“A lot of people have no idea there are alligators in Oklahoma,” said Micah Holmes, assistant chief of information and education for the Wildlife Department.
The heart of the state’s alligator population is located in the Red Slough Wildlife Management District in far southeastern Oklahoma. State wildlife officials say southeastern Oklahoma is on the western edge of the American alligator’s habitat range.
Holmes said researchers from universities will try to find out how many alligators call home to Oklahoma and whether they are spreading to areas outside of Red Slough.
“We suppose it exists because there is a very good habitat in all of that area, but to what extent and to what extent?” Holmes said. “That’s the kind of thing we want to know.”
Researchers will trap and tag the crocodile with transmitters to learn about its movements in and out of McCurtain County.
more:Environmental groups oppose the bill backed by Oklahoma Representative Mullen
Chasing an alligator one day?
Robert Bastarach, a biologist with the US Forest Service in Southeast Oklahoma, stated on social media that the research study would also help the Wildlife Department decide whether to allow alligator hunting, but Holmes said that is not the goal of the project.
“This research is not an incentive to have a hunting season necessarily,” Holmes said. “We just need to get basic background information before we can even think of something like that. There’s a lot we don’t know about the American alligator in Oklahoma.”
“If we ever find out that there is a large population and that the population can tolerate hunting, that’s not far from the realm of possibility, but that’s not what we’re really trying to do with this study.”
If there is alligator hunting in Oklahoma’s future, it will most likely be done through Wildlife Department-controlled hunts, where hunters come forward and put their names on special hunts.
“But we’re very far from any of that kind of discussion,” Holmes said.
more:A Tulsa brewery organized a statewide fishing tournament
Native to Oklahoma
Alligators are native to the Gulf Coastal Plain in southeastern Oklahoma, and occur in the Red and Little River systems of Choctaw, McCurtain, Bryan, and Love counties.
“We’ve had an alligator in Oklahoma for a long time,” Holmes said. “Historically, there has always been crocodile country in that area. Like many animal species, including deer, turkey, bear and crocodile, they were heavily hunted by poaching and excessive harvesting (in the early state days). Many of these populations have rebounded” .
Alligator sightings have increased in recent years, particularly in the drainage systems of the Little River. In Red Slough, alligators live on reclaimed rice farms that are part of the 2,500-acre wetland in the 5,814-acre Wildlife Management Area.
In 2005, the first crocodile nests were discovered in Red Slough.
In February 2021, the alligator in Red Slough made national news when the Red Slough wetlands froze during a record Arctic eruption. Pictures of crocodiles raising their noses from air holes in the ice went viral on social media. It’s a technique biologists call icing or immersion to help the crocodile breathe.
more:Will Tiger Bass be the answer to Grand Lake’s bigger bass growth?
The history of the red slaw
The Red Slough, located southeast of Idabel, is also one of the excellent bird watching destinations in the state with 320 different species documented there, and a staggering number of birds on its 5,800 acres. It is the site of the annual Birding Conference in May each year.
Red Slough is collaboratively managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the US Forest Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The habitat consists of reclaimed paddy fields, bottom hardwoods, small areas of open prairie and replanted hardwood areas.
The Red Slough alligator lives among the many ponds, oxbow lakes, and wetlands in the Wildlife Management Area.
In the late 1960s, the Red Slough region was converted from a wooded wetland, with open expanses of water and hardwood forests, into rice paddies. In 1996, landowner Philip Hogan registered 5,814 acres of Bush Creek Ranch in the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
WRP is a voluntary program that provides landowners with the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. NRCS has built more than 25 miles of levees and installed 18 water control structures to restore the hydrologic conditions and functions of the Red Slough wetland.
Hogan’s registration of his property in the WRP began the Red Slough Wetlands Conservation Project. In 1997, the Conservation Fund (TCF) purchased 3,855 acres of Hogan.
The Conservation Fund donated this space to the Ouachita National Forest to put it in the public domain. This is the path that started the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and forms the heart of the Red Slough Wetland Conservation Project.
In 2000, TCF purchased the remaining 1,959 acres from Hogan. Between 2000 and 2004, the Ouachita National Forest acquired those remaining acres of TCF. Red Slough WMA currently consists of 5,814 acres, all of which are registered in the original Hogan.
The Red Slough’s revival has brought back abundant wildlife to the area, including alligators.
more:Oklahoma mountain streams may contain unique types of smallmouth bass
Occasionally, an alligator will appear in a pond or lake in Oklahoma where one would not expect to find it, like Claremore.
In May, state wildlife officials killed a 9-foot alligator that was found in Lake Claremore. In such cases, it is possible that the crocodile was released into the lake by someone who was keeping the animal in captivity.
“We have no idea where this crocodile came from, but based on the crocodile’s location and size, we’re assuming someone had something to do with it,” Holmes said. “He wouldn’t live that long in the far north, and if he did, he wouldn’t grow to that big.”
more:How the Oklahoma Wildlife Department became a Twitter sensation
Diverse condition of wildlife
The fact that Oklahoma has an indigenous population of crocodiles, although it may be small, is another example of the state’s diversity of wildlife.
Black bears and crocodiles live in southeastern Oklahoma. In the opposite corner of the state in northwest Oklahoma, the Panhandle is home to antelopes and even a few bighorn sheep.
“We say mile per mile we are the most diverse[of wildlife]states,” Holmes said.