It is time, once again, to auction off alligator eggs in Louisiana.
Ranchers collect the eggs from wetlands across South Louisiana, some of which are owned by the state, raising the reptiles after the eggs are hatched on their farms to be harvested for their hides and meat.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries allows farms to bid on the right to harvest from state-owned lands. A rancher agrees to a certain price per egg and is given the right to collect from that area for three years. Those deals are going up for public bid in April, providing a glimpse into the industry's workings.
The lands, owned by the agency, are around the Manchac Swamp, Lake Maurepas, White Lake and the Pearl River.
The minimum bid this year is $20 per egg, said LSU agricultural extension agent Mark Shirley. That's been about the going rate for the past five years or so, though demand for leather dropped last year and there's always the threat of storms drowning nests, as happened last year in areas hit by Tropical Storm Cindy, he said.
Jeb Linscombe, the Wildlife and Fisheries alligator program manager, declined to speculate about what price the eggs are likely to fetch in this year's round of bidding.
Wall's Alligator Farm in Springfield is among the farms that collect some of their eggs from the state lands. Nathan Wall said alligator is still a valuable commodity but otherwise deferred questions o state authorities.
Collectors head into the swamps where female alligators lay nests of about 30 eggs around June each year, Shirley explained. The eggs incubate until August or September, though it's best to get them early while the embryos are still small and better able to absorb being jostled around as they're shipped to the farms where they'll be raised.
In 2016, about 617,000 eggs were collected in Louisiana, of which 548,000 hatched. That same year, ranchers harvested approximately 329,000 adult alligators at an estimated value of $74.7 million, according to Wildlife and Fisheries's 2017 alligator management report.
Licensed hunters harvested another 34,000 specimen in 2016.
The state's alligator program is not just about collecting eggs. It also provides for returning some of the hatched reptiles to nature to refresh the wild population.
Whether they collect their eggs from public or private land, all farms must return 10 percent of their alligators to the wild.
Few hatchlings born into the wild survive to adulthood. They're feasted upon by snakes, birds, raccoons, even larger members of their own species.
"Everything is going to eat a baby alligator," Shirley remarked.
Farmed alligators are far more likely to survive long enough to grow to a size capable of defending themselves. That's why the ranchers are only required to turn loose 10 percent of their alligators, which bear the next generation of eggs for the farmers. Wildlife and Fisheries agents tag the released animals to keep track of the population in the wetlands.
The state requires the ranchers to wait until the creatures are at least four feet long so they'll have a shot at surviving in the wild, Linscombe said.
Editor's Note: This story was changed Monday, April 2, to reflect the correct list of state-owned lands that farms may bid on to harvest alligator eggs.