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Drought Causes Gator Raid

The worst drought in the South in 100 years, coupled with the annual mating season, has uncovered Georgia's usually submerged alligators. In addition, Florida gators are braving busy streets, eating dogs and even resorting to cannibalism.

Visitors are flocking to the Okefenokee swamp in South Georgia, a system that's now losing a half inch of water everyday, just to get a glimpse of beauty untamed.

The 10,000 gators in the 650-square-mile wildlife reserve that once blended into the background, or slid beneath murky water, are suddenly visible to visitors, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts.

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"Great time to see gators!" says Jim Burkhart of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. "Boy, I tell you, they're in here thick as thieves."

In June, Georgia declared mandatory statewide water restrictions, and farmers in Georgia say they are now just two weeks away from disaster.

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In Florida, low lake levels are putting the pinch on the alligators' real estate, promoting aggression and even cannibalism between gators and forcing some to hit the road in search of new waters, experts say.

One alligator, crossing a major street about a mile west of the University of Florida campus, stopped traffic in both directions one day last week. Many others are killed in the attempt.

"Alligators do move around a lot at this time of year," said Dr. Kent Vliet, an alligator biologist in the zoology department at UF.

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"They're probably responding to the drought and to these little storms we've had," Vliet said. "The more shallow bodies of water have all been dry, so alligators have had to move to deeper, more permanent bodies of water."

Rainfall so far this year has been 10 inches below average, according to Malissa Dillon of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

As if vanishing lakes weren't enough, the gators are in the end of mating season, which peaks in April and May.

Females are busy finding nesting sites, and males are wandering in search of water away from aggressive, dominant males.

"This is the time of year that the animals get testy," said Tim Williams, director of public relations at Gatorland in Orlando who has worked with alligators for 30 years.

"One of the most important things we tell people is to leave them alone," Williams said. He noted that it's illegal to harass alligators in any way.

The law also forbids keeping alligators as pets or feeding wild gators. Feeding an alligator makes the animal more dangerous, Williams said, since it learns to associate food with humans.

"An old lady might come along later walking a dog, and that's a marshmallow on a rope as far as the alligator's concerned," he said.

National temperature watchers say this spring was the hottest ever recorded in the United States.

The National Climatic Data Center reports that in March and April—meteorological spring—the nation's average temperature was 55. That was 0.4 degrees warmer than the record set in 1910.

From the Carolinas to the Gulf coast of Louisiana and into West Texas, the South is now suffering through it's worst drought in a hundred years.

Federal weather forecasters have upgraded the classification of the intensity of the drought for much of Georgia, southeastern Alabama and northwestern Florida to "exceptional drought" conditions, its highest category.

In Georgia, statewide watering restrictions began Monday. The head of the state's Environmental Protection Division admits they could have done a better job planning for the drought.

EDP Director Harold Reheis says a lack of personnel and the ongoing water battle with Alabama and Florida are to blame for Georgia not having a drought emergency plan. Such a plan could have predicted the drought sooner and allowed for less severe restrictions.

"I guess we've been remiss," Reheis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I promise you, though, that we will have a drought management plan in place next year."

A plan would probably include how to identify a drought and at what point to issue restrictions, Reheis said. Similar plans have been approved in Washington and San Antonio and also New Hampshire.

In South Carolina, the governor says drought sricken farmers are in desperate need of federal aid.

In Flordia, where brush fire season is just heating up, crops are withering, while the wildfires burn. People are no longer just worried, they're scared.

James Laver of the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center says, "Relief won't come until the tropical weather season comes, and that brings a whole new set of problems."

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