Big gators are starting to disappear — the really big ones, 10 feet or longer. The reason why is simple: Hunting.
S.C. alligator harvest
Public hunt: 982 tags, 465 alligators taken, including 150 10 feet long or larger.
Private land management: 608 tags, 296 alligators, including 36 10 feet long or larger.
Public hunt: 1,060 tags, 472 alligators taken, including 172 10 feet long or larger.
Private land management: 574 tags, 220 alligators, including 27 10 feet long or larger.
Public hunt: 1,047 tags, 473 alligators taken, including 167 10 feet long or larger.
Private land: 542 tags, 228 alligators, including 35 10 feet long or larger.
That relieves the state of some of the animals that have caused the biggest problems for people, but it also takes away mature animals that are the breeding population.
Concern is gathering that the loss of “brood stock” alligators could again threaten an iconic Lowcountry animal that was hunted and poached for generations to the point of extinction in the Southeast, before the animal’s placement on the federal Endangered Species list in the 1960s.
The animals don’t reproduce until they reach about 6 feet, or about 10 to 12 years old.
The state’s one-month public hunt season opens Sept. 14 for the fifth year. Private land-management hunts start about the same time and last until spring. “Nuisance” alligators that show up too close to people are removed and killed regularly during spring and summer months.
That adds up to more than 2,000 recorded kills per year, most of them the larger, breeding animals — females and males. And illegal killing and poaching continue.
Gators are hunted for trophies, but also for their leathery skin and edible tail.
One hunting guide talked about seeing dozens of carcasses last year, many with the heads and tails removed.
More than 100,000 alligators are estimated to live in the state, but hard numbers are difficult to come by, and no one knows just how many breeding-age alligators are out there.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources harvest report for 2012 says the number of large alligators harvested — the trophy animals hunters seek — appears to be dwindling and interest in hunting them appears to be levelling out as the bigger gators get harder to find.
Before the public hunts, it was not unusual to spot huge alligators while cruising Lowcountry estuary rivers in warm weather. Such sightings now seem fewer and their locations spottier.
“I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re back to protecting them if we keep hammering them like we’re doing,” said Ron Russell, a nuisance-alligator trapper and gator hunter, who also manages the reptiles’ populations for Lowcountry subdivisions with large water tracts. He is careful to maintain a few larger animals when he can, he said.
“This is not a white-tailed deer. This is an animal that takes a long time to mature. A 9-footer could be 30 years old. We can’t replace him, not in my lifetime,” Russell said.
Meanwhile, state legislators have opened up the controversial private landowner “management” program from 45 days to nine months. The law allows plantation-scale landowners to kill alligators to control their numbers, as long as they obtain a $10 tag for each animal. Those kills also tend to be larger alligators.
DNR managers said they will continue to control the number of gators killed by limiting harvest tags for the private hunts.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said he understood that when he sponsored the bill. The idea is to give landowners more time to cull problem gators than the busy fall harvest and maintenance work months.
Campsen doesn’t agree that big gators are disappearing. Where he hunts in the ACE Basin, he hasn’t seen a dwindling population, he said.
Jordan Patrick, of Tail and Scale Outfitters in Bowman, said extending the private-land harvest into late winter and early spring could bring bigger problems for the big gators.
“They’re going to start shooting them coming out of hibernation when (the sluggish alligators) are not at the top of their game,” he said. “That’s just like shooting fish in a barrel.”
The 2012 DNR alligator harvest report notes an apparent dwindling of big gators.
“As predicted, the number of large alligators taken has decreased from the previous season. ... Large alligators are not an infinite resource, as it can potentially take 20 or more years for an alligator in South Carolina to exceed 10 feet in length. Currently, South Carolina harvests some of the largest alligators throughout the animal’s range.”
The report goes on to caution that the loss of large gators could mean loss of interest in the hunting program.
The state is now in a cooperative study of gator populations and habitats, to come up with new strategies to sustain the species.
“We believe we’ve taken care of the nuisance animals,” said Derrell Shipes, DNR wildlife project chief. “We believe the behavior modification of the animals is going to be pretty substantial. If they’re scared of people, that tickles me to death. Our goal is to have a reasonable population of well-behaved alligators.”
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
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