After population decline, crocodiles are back

An American crocodile at least 12 feet long had grabbed the jack. Ten minutes later, the croc surfaced, crunching the fish between toothy jaws, then gulping it down. It was like a scene from Jurassic Park, Castleberry joked.

“I’m just glad it wasn’t my hand,” he said.

Castleberry’s uncomfortably close call a few months ago was just one of an increasing number of croc encounters across South Florida. Last month in Key Largo, a 10-footer in a canal killed a 65-pound dog named Roxie. And last summer, crocs cruised into the canals of upscale Gables-By-The-Sea along Biscayne Bay, prompting the worried community association to add a “crocodile watch” to the crime and traffic watches on its website.

The American crocodile, or Crocodylus acutus, a salt-water species once reduced to a few hundred reclusive reptiles hidden among the mangroves of the deep Everglades, remains a rare creature. But the population has multiplied nearly 10-fold since the 1970s, with numbers now estimated at around 1,500 — even after a killer freeze two years ago that scientists say killed at least 150 adults.

The result is that crocs are slowly pushing back into coastal areas they long ago abandoned — places that now happen to have people living there. Last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fielded 106 “nuisance” croc calls — with more than 80 percent of those from Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, which boast prime breeding grounds along Florida Bay and the highest concentration of crocs.

“There is no question that with the increase in the crocodile population, encounters are much more common,” said Lindsey Hord, a biologist in charge of FWC’s nuisance reptile program.

Compared to the state’s one million alligators, which generate some 15,000-plus nuisance calls from worried suburbanites every year, crocs pose a small problem — but a far more challenging one.

The recovery of crocs prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove their “endangered” status in 2007 but they remain a “threatened” and federally protected species that scientists say still needs to expand back into historic range to assure long-term survival. So unlike when an alligator invades suburbia, state trappers typically won’t move a crocodile until a third nuisance call.

“That’s not a hard-and-fast rule,” said Hord. “Realistically, public safety is our absolute first priority but we have to recognize the need of the species.”

While each case is different, he said, the message is to learn to safely live with them.

That’s not the answer many homeowners expect — or want to hear. Last summer, homeowners were shocked when state trappers, responding to a call about a five-foot croc in a swimming pool in Gables-by-the-Sea, tossed the reptile back into a canal. It was only a few weeks after a dead dog with bite marks had been found floating in a canal.

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