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Gators moving into Tennessee

Larry Woody • Apr 12, 2018 at 8:30 AM

First came coyotes, then armadillos and cougars.

Now gators are invading the state.

A seven-footer was recently captured on video in the Wolf River Wildlife Management Area in Southwest Tennessee. Wildlife officials confirmed the authenticity of the grainy video which is posted on the internet.

There have been periodic alligator sighting in the state for years. Several years ago one lived in Nashville’s Radnor Lake, according to a long-time refuge visitor.

Those occasional gators were dismissed as merely “pets” that had been released by their owners, not immigrants.

Tourists sometimes bought home baby alligators from Florida as novelties. The novelty quickly wore off, however, when the cute little five-inch gators grew into ravenous, jaw-snapping five-footers.

Impractical to house, dangerous to be around and expensive to feed, the grown-up gators were often released into nearby waters. Sometimes they survived for awhile before succumbing to cold weather.

Tennessee has had some relatively mild overall winters in recent years, but not without some interspersed frigid periods during which the survival of alligators would seem unlikely.

However, the same was said about tilapia that were introduced into Old Hickory Lake by flooding almost a decade ago. Fisheries experts said the tropical fish could not survive, but they were wrong. The tilapia not only survived, but flourished and today are found in the lake by the thousands and perhaps millions.

The tilapia apparently survive the severest winter weather by moving into warm-water discharge areas below the Gallatin steam plant. There could also be underground streams that feed the lake and provide warmer water in which the fish can survive.

However they do it, tilapia continue to thrive in Old Hickory Lake under conditions experts once considered impossible. Evidently gators are finding a way too.

In recent years it has been speculated that alligators were moving into parts of West Tennessee, in which ecology is better suited for them – milder winters, abundant swamps and marshes, and lakes with mud bottoms.

Even if gators invaded the Western part of the state, wildlife officials deemed it unlikely that they would venture further east where the environment is less hospitable.  However, the same was said about armadillos – that the little Western natives could not adapt to Middle Tennessee – but they did.

The presence of cougars, on the other hand, is not as unusual, since the animals are indigenous to the state. They are simply returning to what was once their home territory after virtually vanishing a century ago.

The coyote invasion is likewise easy to understand. The adaptable animals are opportunists that continue to expand their territory. In Tennessee they are not only surviving but thriving, and nowadays are common sights across the state.

Alligators in Tennessee waters, on the other hand, will take some getting used to.

The public is reminded that any species not designated as “game” with a regulated hunting season is protected by law, and that includes alligators.

If you encounter a gator leave it alone – and hope it does the same to you.

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