Heart of Louisiana: Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge

There was a time not too many years ago when Louisiana didn't have that many alligators. But thanks to some pioneering research at a wildlife refuge in Southwest Louisiana, the number of alligators has grown from less than 100,000 to more than one-and-a-half million.  FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us to the place where it all happened – the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge – in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.

Ben Welch is releasing 170 young alligators back into the marsh behind his home in Grand Cheniere in Southwest Louisiana. That's because he harvests gator eggs from the property.

"It's anywhere from 12 to 17 percent what you pick up out in the wild," Welch said. "So if you pick up 1,000 eggs, you've got to turn 17 percent loose. That's 170 alligators."

The harvested eggs are hatched on farms, and those baby gators rapidly grow to 4 feet in length under controlled conditions.

"Grab him around his neck and hold his leg just like this," Welch said, demonstrating. "Hold this leg, this leg. Hold him just like that. There you go. Hold him tight!"

Welch enjoys letting youngsters meet his alligators up close.

"Come see, come here," he says. "Oh no, no, no. Look, look, grab his tail. And grab this leg right here."

The idea is to return the same percentage of 4-foot alligators that would naturally survive on their own.

In the 1960s, the Louisiana alligator was on the engendered species list.  It was the pioneering research at the Rockefeller Refuge that got the gator delisted. This 72,000-acre refuge of coastal marshes was donated to the state in 1914 by Tobasco's McIlhenney family.

"Some of the collections here are done for research projects," said Philip Trosclair, of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The formula for increasing the alligator population was developed at Rockefeller.

"This was the groundbreaking research for the crocodile specialist groups that has been modeled throughout the whole world," Trosclair said.

And biologists with Wildlife and Fisheries are working on other species.  There are ponds that hold a half-million Florida large-mouth bass fry that will grow and be released into freshwater marshes.

"What we want to see is it contributing to the larger fish that are being caught," Trosclair said.

And it's not only large fish.  The whooping crane disappeared from Louisiana 60 years ago.  Some of those huge birds are being reintroduced at Rockefeller.

"Five feet tall, standing upright, and about a 7-foot wingspan," said biologist Will Selman.

The whooping cranes come from a wildlife refuge in Maryland.  Handlers dress in white and black to mimic the birds and avoid the animals imprinting on humans. After they get used to their marshy containment pen, the cranes are banded, released and tracked across Southwest Louisiana.

"Tentatively, we think we're learning from them, and they're getting a little bit better on their own, as well," Selman said.

Rockefeller is a huge wildlife paradise, from alligators to every type of wading bird and water fowl known in the state.  And as the sun sets, the sky is alive with countless birds heading to their evening roost -- in a place where nature is given a chance to flourish.

The state of Louisiana started allowing wild gator harvests in the 1970s, and then started alligator farming in the 1980's.