Official Looks for Alligator Near Arizona Strip

Official Looks for Alligator Near Arizona Strip

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ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) -- The last 30 minutes of the drive to Pakoon Springs along the Arizona Strip is bone jarring, but after emerging from a swatch of land heavy with Joshua trees, the springs literally form an oasis in the desert.

Official Looks for Alligator Near Arizona Strip

Trees surround the springs, a sharp contrast to the stark mountains rising nearby and the harsh desert landscape. Along the largest pond in Pakoon Springs, cattails wave gently in the breeze as bullfrogs croak out a deep bass greeting.

Pakoon Springs is in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, about 50 miles southwest of St. George - about a 90 minute drive - and five miles from the Nevada border. While the springs are on the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert, they comprise the largest spring system in the 1-million-acre monument and one of the largest spring systems on the Arizona Strip.

Besides being an ecological surprise, the springs have another claim to fame - at least for the time being. It is the home of a 9-foot-long alligator. Tuesday afternoon, Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, came in along with five able bodies to try to capture and remove the alligator that has claimed the springs as its home for almost 20 years.

Official Looks for Alligator Near Arizona Strip

"It's just a waiting game," Johnson said after he and the other men set up three snares to try to nab the alligator. "But patience isn't one of my strong attributes."

Johnson calls the non-lethal snares baited with chicken and rabbits "eye candy." He said once the bait starts smelling, he didn't think the alligator would be able to resist the aroma.

David Boyd, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, said Pakoon Springs was acquired by the BLM in 2002. Until then, the 240-acre parcel was in private ownership, and the previous owner brought the alligator to the site.

As part of the deed transfer, the BLM agreed to work with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to relocate the alligator.

Boyd said it is illegal to own alligator because the animals are classified as restricted wildlife in Arizona. So, the BLM is now in violation of state law.

Official Looks for Alligator Near Arizona Strip

For a while, officials weren't sure if the alligator was even alive. But in late April, BLM employees reported alligator sightings, the last one, which also yielded a few photos, was at the end of May.

At the largest pond at the springs, where the alligator resides, Johnson points out a claw mark from one of the alligator's toes.

Johnson, along with his partner, Daniel Marchand, runs a state-approved sanctuary in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the alligator will have a home.

In addition to making a home for about 50 alligators, a couple of crocodiles and six caimans, Marchand, who has the sanctuary on his property, also cares for rattlesnakes and Gila monsters.

The Gila monsters and rattlesnakes are easily placed but it's not so easy to find homes for the alligators. Johnson said unless they are kept in Plexiglas tanks, the alligators, which can stay underwater for an hour with one breath, don't hold much attention for zoo visitors, who may have to wait for hours for just a glimpse.

Official Looks for Alligator Near Arizona Strip

Alligator hunting or housing may not be for everyone, but Johnson said he is about as odd as you can get.

Two of his hunting buddies - Matt Fabritz and Karl Parker, who are along for the alligator hunt and have known Johnson for about 30 years - agree that their friend is odd.

"But he's lots of fun," Fabritz said.

Rounding out the group is Colter Jenkins and Andy Harris.

Harris grew up in Florida and knows the dangers of c atching an alligator. Pointing out the alligator's lair, Harris said the depth of the trampled cattails goes down about six feet, and the alligator could be hiding at any depth.

While it may take a week or more before the alligator is captured, Johnson already has developed the plan for catching the critter - towel over the eyes, get two legs up so the alligator can't roll and tape his mouth shut.

The alligator then will be transported in a horse trailer that will be lined with carpet remnants, which will be soaked with water. Johnson said ice also will be thrown in with the alligator, and the move will take place in the dead of night, when it is coolest.

All the permits to move the alligator are in place, as are 32 gallons of water to keep the alligator comfortable during transportation.

Until the alligator is caught, the group is bunking 15 miles away at a BLM field fire station, and Pakoon Springs if off limits.

The springs have signs warning off visitors that the area is closed until July 31, or until the alligator is caught.

Even with his experience around reptiles, Johnson gives a nervous laugh when asked if he has any worries about catching the nine-foot alligator. "My hand slipping off his mouth," he replied.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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