Floating gator carcasses raise hunting questions

State wildlife staff are studying alligator populations and habitats to come up with new management strategies for a species that some say is over-hunted.

The alligator carcasses found floating without heads or tails in the Ashley River earlier this month are more evidence that the state might have a problem with how it manages hunting for the otherwise protected species.

Daniel Rogers, 36, of North Charleston and Larry Dennis Lewis, 64, of Charleston turned themselves in to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources when media reports of five “poached” carcasses made them realize they might have committed a violation.

They have been charged with littering in a misdemeanor case scheduled to be heard next week.

But they didn’t poach the alligators; they hunted them legally, under an exclusion in state law that allows private plantation owners to shoot virtually as many alligators as they want.

And the men didn’t do anything to dispose of the carcasses that hunters haven’t done for years: They cleaned the gators on a dock one of them owns and tossed what they didn’t want back for food for other creatures, thinking they would sink.

“We had permits to take them. There’s nothing in the rules about what to do to dispose of the carcasses,” Rogers said.

DNR has no rules for disposing of any hunted carcass, Capt. Robert McCullough said. “It’s more just common sense about how you get rid of something. You don’t just throw it out.” Agency staff are working on a new permit that would require proper disposal, said Jay Butfiloski, alligator program coordinator.

Five carcasses were found floating by DNR. But the men said they took nine alligators on a Berkeley County plantation, even though the state’s public hunting season is still three months away.

From September through May, private landowners can apply as often as they want for a $10 permit to kill an alligator, even from a distance with a rifle and scope. The permit can be extended to guests, sometimes for a fee.

It’s a sharp contrast to the public hunt, where people have to pay to apply for a blind draw to win a permit to hunt one alligator, pay a $100 fee, somehow snare the thrashing, quarter-ton reptile and drag it in to be killed with a bang stick or a handgun as a safety measure to keep hunters from shooting the animals at a distance.

The alligator is a protected species that was hunted and poached for generations, until it was returned from the point of extinction in the Southeast. More than 100,000 alligators are estimated to live in the state, but hard numbers are difficult to come by.

In the 2014 monthlong public hunt, 325 alligators were killed statewide, and another 355 were killed under “nuisance” permits issued when a reptile presents a threat. Under private land permits, 377 alligators were killed in 2013-14, the last year for which DNR has totals compiled for the September through May season.

Plantation owners say the exclusion is necessary to control large numbers of alligators drawn to the riverside rice impoundment environs. But opponents say it amounts to no more than a privilege and might be contributing to depleting the species of the brood stock of larger, mature alligators.

“I’ve always felt there’s no control and we’re overharvesting,” said Ron Russell, who owns a nuisance alligator management business. “DNR hands out the (private land) tags like candy. They’re allowing unlimited tags. (Private land tag holders) are slaughtering the gators. DNR is not restricting it with any management plan. That shines a poor light on anybody who’s involved in alligator harvesting or any kind of alligator program.”

The state extended the private land season from 45 days to nine months a few years ago, and DNR managers said then they would continue to control the number of gators killed by limiting harvest tags for the private hunts. The number for 2013-14 stayed in the range of earlier numbers.

The 2012 DNR alligator harvest report noted an apparent dwindling of big gators and went 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. McCullough said he expects the private-lands management would be reviewed as part of that.

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