By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - Wildlife officials on Friday will open a Florida nature preserve for the first time to a handful of alligator hunters who waited more than a decade to stalk the large reptiles in the Everglades.

Eleven hunters, selected at random from 1,203 applicants, will each be allowed to take two alligators from the nearly 150,000-acre Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge between mid-August and early October.

Animal rights activists plan to stage protests at the entry to the park on Friday night, when the hunters arrive.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year approved the hunt after more than a decade of debate.

Florida has held alligator hunts in parts of the state since 1988 to help curb growing populations, however this hunt will be inside a wildlife sanctuary that is one of the last remaining pieces of the northern Everglades.

Hunters will be allowed to search for alligators only at night to avoid run-ins with bird watchers or hikers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission requires alligators be hooked or ensnared then killed with a bangstick, a pole that shoots a shotgun shell or bullet into the animal’s brain.

A license costs $272 for hunters who are Florida residents and $1,022 for others, according to the commission.

“There won’t be any people out there shooting with pistols or rifles,” said Rolf Olson, a refuge official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nick Atwood, a campaign coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said: "Refuges should be places where animals are protected from harm and not hunted for fun or profit."

He said the method used to kill alligators often leaves them conscious and suffering for a long time before they die.

Olson said refuges have long been places where hunters, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, roamed on a controlled basis. Recent surveys of the refuge pegged the alligator population between 2,000 and 3,000, and Olson said removing less than two dozen would have a limited effect.

“We’re going into this very slow, not rushing anything,” he said.


(Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)