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Rain, Traffic Taking Toll On Alligators

By JIM TUNSTALL Of The Tampa Tribune

Gainesville May 18, 1998

Free gator shows?

You bet, but only if you risk low-speed gawking in a high-speed world.

Downpours earlier this year left Paynes Prairie State Preserve bursting at the seams. Heavy rain expanded its boundaries. In some cases that means water lingering on the shoulder and pavement of U.S. 441 and Interstate 75.

Motorists are getting an eyeful of the reptile world's answer to aquatic ballet dancers and sunbathers. Literally hundreds of alligators are cruising in the water just off the asphalt or sunning on the shoulders of the road.

That's a boon for slack-jawed passers-by, especially Northerners. If all they care about is seeing one of these toothy creatures up close, they can save the admission to places like Gatorland. But by putting gators closer to automobiles, nature is causing significant problems.

Rubberneckers are slowing to school-zone speed on two superhighways where the posted speeds are 65 to 70 mph. Nine days ago, one tractor-trailer creamed another after the latter stopped for a look and then made an ill-advised re-entry onto I-75. Two days ago it was a three-car collision on U.S. 441. Neither accident caused serious injuries, but there was plenty of twisted metal.

The gators aren't so lucky.

"We don't have a count yet because the staff hasn't put all their numbers together," says Jack Gillen, preserve manager. "But I travel U.S. 441 every day and there's usually a dead gator or two."

The 2-mile stretches of road already are considered a killing field. A 5 1/2-year study through the end of 1995 said 34,354 animals were killed on U.S. 441 during that period. Traffic is so intense on I-75, park rangers don't risk their lives to count. Besides, "when something gets hit on I-75, it doesn't take very long for it to get ground into the pavement," says David O'Neill, who founded the Paynes Prairie Wildlife Coalition with his wife Linda.

Alligators, says Gillen, have delicate thermostats. They go into the water when they need to cool off. They come on land and into the sun when they need to get warm. When there isn't much space between them and speeding vehicles, they become road kill at an alarming rate.

When water crept over the shoulders of U.S. 441 early last month, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) lowered the speed limit, closed the outside lanes and prohibited truck traffic on the highway. It also put up lighted signs that warned motorists not to stop.

Since then, the water has subsided about a foot. DOT spokeswoman Julie McNeill says all lanes now are open, the speed limit is back to 65 mph and "no parking" signs have replaced the lighted variety. Trucks are still detoured.

Gillen says the water is still high enough that there are plenty of gators, but now there are some larger ones because it's their mating season.

Also, O'Neill adds, the warm weather is causing more snakes to move around, and that means bad news for the snakes. A study in the 1970's said only one in 13 makes it across U.S. 441.

The death toll in the 5 1/2-year study included 31,794 frogs and 1,061 snakes. Other victims included insects, hawks, eagles, deer, otters, armadillos and raccoons. Those figures are high enough that the DOT bowed to pressure from O'Neill's group, among others. In 1999 it will spend $2.6 million to install a 3-foot-high, 2-mile-long wildlife barrier on both sides of the highway.

For now, preserve biologist Jim Weimer says, "We haven't had a lick of rain, but we're going into the time of the year when we usually get a lot of it. I want the water to stay high. It's good for the system, the prey base. But it raises the mortality. It could get pretty gruesome."