Monster mission Pioneering survey to guide future of gator hunting

As the sun begins to set, an alligator swims by Aug. 20 on the Cooper River.

The spotlight shines into gleaming red eyes. On the boat in the Cooper River under a half moon, the wildlife biologist calls out the count.

“I have two, three, maybe 8 to 10 feet,” says Jay Butfiloski of S.C. Department of Natural Resources. That’s alligators, in the tidal flats of an old rice field, glaring back at the weird, blinding beam of light.

The American alligator is the toothy prehistoric monster of the Lowcountry, as frightening as it is awe-inspiring. For some people, coming across one makes for a catch-your-breath moment that tugs at the love for the land. For others, the animal is a menace to be rid of.

More than 1,000 of the otherwise protected species are killed in the state each year, by hunters seeking the largest animals, and occasionally poachers. That’s raised alarms about depleting the mature “brood stock” vital to a sustainable population. In the 2014 public hunt alone, the average size of the kill was 8 feet long, according to DNR.

The count by a research team on this humid August night is being conducted only a few weeks before the Sept. 12 opening of the 2015 public hunt, now in its eighth year, and a few months after the end of a nine-month-long private land hunt.

It’s the first comprehensive state survey, funded by public hunt license

sales. It has to answer two questions: Just how many alligators are out there and how big are they? Right now, nobody really knows.

Hunt supporters say the culls are needed to control a growing population of dangerous quarter-ton reptiles. Before the hunts, gators had begun showing up too big and too frequently on people’s properties near water. Critics say the hunts are little more than slaughter of the recently re-established species, prodded by legislators representing hunting interests.

Nobody knows who’s in the right, much less how to manage the hunts to sustain the species. On this night, Butfiloski has joined a Clemson University research team trying to find out.

The small boat motors through wisps of mist as bats skip off the water. Herons and egrets are poised at the water’s edge, and behind them in the dark is the occasional gleam of a deer’s eye.

Butfiloski keeps one hand on the wheel, the other scanning a bank with the light. To his side, Chris Boyce, a Clemson researcher, shines a light on the other bank and calls out his own count. Behind them, Abby Lawson leans over a chart board scribbling the numbers by the light of her headlamp.

You judge how big a gator is by a well-known formula: for every inch between the eyes and snout, the gator is a foot long. The gators sink as they approach and the researchers often get only a few seconds to tell.

Lawson, 30, is a Clemson University researcher who specializes in population modeling. She designed this study, “the most intensive survey in any of the states in alligator range, that I know of,” she says. As well as a population estimate, it’s designed to come up with a method to track population numbers as the hunts continue.

Neither are simple tasks because gators don’t stay put. Largely, they breed in open water in the spring, then females move to the marsh and reeds for nesting. Males “patrol” territories of various sizes, likely defending their turf.

“You could check the same place twice and get very different numbers,” Lawson says.

Biologists aren’t even sure yet if some alligators live in the rivers, or the rivers are just pathways for them between habitats. Plus, when you’re trying to count, some alligators simply are submerged or hidden. Surveys made so far haven’t really been much more than data-supported guesses.

The key, Lawson says, is to find a way to calculate the approximate number of alligators you don’t see for every one you do see. That means counting and recounting, to get a tidal and seasonal range of the numbers found. She and Boyce are running 24 survey routes on rivers, lakes and impoundments, including six “intensive routes” surveyed once a month.

Lawson has equipped 24 male gators so far with transmitters. Partly, it’s to see how often one might be there and not be seen. But it’s also to track how, when and where they move. The distance can be startling. One gator equipped with a transmitter in the Santee Delta then swam more than 10 miles to North Island off Winyah Bay, then came back.

Lawson is a tall woman with the settled air of someone at home in the outdoors. She has been running this survey night after night, the hours so long that one time on the Cooper River the team was startled by the gong at the Mepkin Abbey monastery waking the monks.

The 15-mile run of the Cooper is the first of at least three surveys the team plans to do this night, maybe squeezing in a fourth if they can get to it before daybreak. The surveys almost have to be in the dark: “eye shine” is how you locate a gator.

The sun sets fiery violet in a slash of a thundercloud, and Lawson talks about the beauty of it reflected off the water. She grew up in Alaska in a hunting environment, studied birds in the Southwest desert. For her, the prehistoric-looking alligators took a little getting used to, but not much.

The appeal of it for her is the science, a chance to find answers to pressing questions with consequences in the daily world. “It’s an opportunity to influence policy,” she says frankly.

The Cooper survey carries an import of its own. The river has been considered a hotbed of the gator population growth the Lowcountry — boaters reported seeing big ones lined up by the dozens along the plantation levees — as well as a focus of plantation private hunt shooting.

Controversy over the hunts was goaded last spring when, responding to alarmed boaters, DNR documented five large carcasses without heads or tails floating in the Ashley River. Officers suspected poaching, but the animals had been taken legally at a Berkeley County plantation. Two men turned themselves in and were charged with illegal dumping.

From September through May, 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 biggest similarity is that both target the biggest gators.

“We’re overharvesting on private land, no doubt about it. We’re still not managing it properly,” says Ron Russell, who owns a nuisance alligator management business, and is one of the people who thinks the largest “brood stock” gators should not be culled, just the middle size.

The public hunt is self-managing to a degree, he says, because the mature alligators have gotten warier. But “you go out on the Cooper River, it didn’t used to be anything to see a fair number of large alligators. Now you’re lucky to see one or two. We’re beating (large alligators) back real, real hard.”

American alligators can live to be more than 60 years old and attain lengths greater than 13 feet, according to DNR.

How many are making it anywhere near that age and size is maybe the toughest issue for the survey to weigh in on. More than 100 gators are counted on the Cooper this night. But their sizes are estimates gauged in those few seconds of eye shine. “Unknown (size)” gets called out repeatedly by Butfiloski and Boyce.

Six feet long is the mark between juvenile and adult. An 8-foot-long alligator is considered mature. It usually has gained heft and has that beefy look of a monster. So far, the survey isn’t finding a lot of gators above the 10-foot or bigger mark, Lawson says. But they are finding good numbers at the 8-foot or bigger mark.

Historic counts, dating back some 40 years, found so few gators longer than 10 feet that the counts often didn’t include the category, Lawson says, “which I think is telling. They weren’t even around.” Private land owners and groups have shared some of those historic counts, a cooperation she hasn’t seen before and finds humbling, she says.

“The desire,” Butfiloski says, “has always been to keep what we have.”

Lawson hopes to have the survey and science completed, an estimated number of gators in hand, by May 2017 — in time for DNR to decide a number of permits for the fall public hunt.

The night now is getting later and the clouds are gone, the half moon up high. Rims of trees along the dark riverland glow almost white. River otters surprised Lawson and Boyce in this stretch of the river last time, he mentions. The boat passes a dock and they tease each other, where are the dock gators? There are always alligators around docks, it seems.

Boyce is counting again, “One unknown. One over six, now one (more) over six.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.