Gator in Utah Lake? It’s a hoax

Gator? • Utah wildlife officials “more and more skeptical” as near-identical alligator stories surface in Iowa, South Carolina.

State wildlife authorities are deeply dubious of claims by a man who says he was angling for catfish on Utah Lake last weekend when he instead caught a four-foot alligator, a tropical predator that has no business in Utah, at least outside a zoo.

After seeking unsuccessfully to contact the man Wednesday and Thursday for more details and examining digital marks on emailed photos of the animal, officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) said they were treating the report as likely bogus.

Subsequent reports to DWR that a man giving the same name recently contacted newspapers in Iowa and South Carolina with identical claims of a gator caught in area waters have only added to their rising doubts, one official said.

"We're becoming more and more skeptical as we go," Drew Cushing, head of DWR's aquatic division, said Thursday. "It sounds like this whole thing is just a guy playing pranks on people."

But the agency's investigation continues, Cushing said, and DWR officials remain eager to contact the man.

"I'm not sure he's broken the law," he said, "but we'd like to pay him a visit and let him know we don't appreciate the humor."

The man, who gave his name as Neal Barlett in a series of email exchanges with DWR and The Salt Lake Tribune, said that he kept the reptile in a cooler after ostensibly catching it around 8 p.m. on Saturday and taking it to the home of his in-laws in Provo.

At The Tribune's urging, the man emailed a photo of the reptile to a reporter, though the shot was tightly focused and lacked any identifying features of the surrounding landscape. He then sent four similar photos.

The Tribune ran an initial version of the alligator story online around 1 p.m. Wednesday but later held it from its print edition, as doubts mounted. DWR officials later said the digital timestamps contained in the photos' so-called metadata appeared to have been altered, raising red flags. The Tribune modified the story to reflect growing doubts.

Tribune reporter Brian Maffly, who reported and wrote the story, apologized to readers. "I'm really sorry if I misled my readers that this was a legitimate claim," Maffly said.

Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce said the newspaper's strict reporting and editing protocols for verifying the story prior to web publication were not followed.

Barlett, who claimed he was visiting from Idaho, wrote that he pulled the gator out of the water near the Jordan River outflow while fishing off a boat for channel catfish Saturday evening with his 8-year-old daughter, using hardboiled eggs wrapped in bacon as bait.

DWR takes such reports seriously. Releasing nonnative wildlife into the wild is a crime in Utah and the agency swiftly launched an investigation.

As initial gator reports surfaced Wednesday, Krissy Wilson, DWR's assistant chief for native species, referred to the matter as "a public safety issue," given the number of people who recreate on Utah Lake.

"People aren't aware of the implications of these nonnative species being introduced into the environment," Wilson said at the time. "These are illegal activities and have far-reaching impacts on wildlife species as well as the public."

A Lexus-Nexus search indicates there are Idaho residents with the last name of Barlett, but not a Neal Barlett.

DWR said its records showed three temporary fishing licenses for out-of-state residents purchased under the name Neal Barlett in recent years. Such purchases require ID verification.

As DWR probed further, Cushing said the man would only communicate sporadically via email and deflected requests for more details and a phone contact — even as a conservation officer traveled to Provo in hopes of recovering the alligator.

"As soon as we started down the right direction," Cushing said Thursday, "he just went silent."

In his emails, the man wrote that he was choosing to "lay low" for fear of a public backlash over the incident.

Thursday morning, the man claimed that he transported the alligator from Provo to his home in Caldwell, Idaho the day after it was caught.

"We have a small detention pond for our neighborhood, and she was there, and very happy," the man wrote.

He also wrote Thursday the reptile was to be "rescued" that morning by Idaho Fish and Wildlife officials. But he later wrote that acquaintances living near Deer Flat, south of Caldwell, had retrieved the alligator and taken it there, possibly to live in Lake Lowell in Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge.

Introduction of nonnative species into the wild also is illegal under Idaho law.

A spokeswoman for Idaho Fish and Wildlife's southwest region, which covers Caldwell, said she had no information on reports of a pending alligator rescue.

Exotic species have taken a heavy toll on Utah's waterways, particularly from the introduction of fish such as burbot and carp that out-compete native species and disrupt the ecosystem. In Utah Lake, a population of red-eared sliders, a turtle species commonly kept as pets, has become permanently established, due to people who turned loose turtles that were no longer convenient. Wilson confirmed that gators have been recovered from the Jordan River on two or three occasions, but no one was ever prosecuted for releasing them.

"We know people get these baby alligators when they are little and keep them in a terrariums," she said. "Everybody likes them until they grow."

tsemerad@sltrib.com Twitter: @TonySemerad