Opening day of the 2020 alligator hunting season in South Carolina is Saturday, and officials with the Department of Natural Resources said it comes at a time when fatal encounters have put more attention on the reptiles.
“Attacks have happened more recently than they’ve happened in the other parts of my career,” DNR spokesman Capt. Robert McCullough said.
"They're a 200 million-year-old predator," he added, "and they're dangerous."
One incident made national headlines in May when a woman was killed by an alligator on Kiawah Island.
The state holds a lottery each year to issue up to 1,000 gator hunting permits to South Carolinians. This year, a record-breaking 7,172 people applied, DNR Furbearer and Alligator Program Coordinator Jay Butfiloski said. The season ends on Oct. 10.
Starting Saturday, hunters will take to South Carolina's rivers, lakes and swamps to look for the reptiles. For years, alligators were an endangered species and off-limits to most hunting. They’re still a protected class, but state legislators, spurred by reports of large alligators that didn’t shy from people in and around Lakes Marion and Moultrie, approved the hunts in 2008.
The woman who was killed on Kiawah Island in May was the third person to die from an alligator encounter in the state, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources records.
The death of a 90-year-old woman in July 2016 in a pond outside a West Ashley extended-care facility was the first alligator-related fatality on record in the Palmetto State, according to DNR. In August 2018, South Carolina’s second alligator-related death in two years occurred, when a 45-year-old woman was killed at a resort community on Hilton Head Island.
The main purpose of the alligator hunt is to cut down on the population, McCullough said.
“The hunting is a useful tool of managing the population,” he said. “We’ve done a good job protecting gators and they’ve had a strong comeback.”
American alligators can live to be more than 60 years old and grow to around 13 feet long. They must be 4 feet or greater in length to be taken in a hunt, and only one can be taken per permit. In 2019, 336 alligators were killed during the public season. The average size taken in the hunts is around 9 feet.
About as many are taken in private land “nuisance” hunts each year. Those can occur when alligators show up too close to people or too plentiful in waterfowl impoundments. They are removed and killed regularly during spring and summer months.
No rifles are allowed, but handguns and bangsticks are permitted for killing the alligator on land. No bait, baited hooks, set hooks, or pole hunting is allowed.
It's not clear what effect the hunting has had on the gator population in South Carolina. A DNR study last year was unable to estimate the exact number of the species throughout the state.