Gator-hunt resentment

One in every three alligators killed during the public-hunt season last year was killed on a private, riverside plantation.

Plantation owners can shoot virtually as many alligators as they want, even from a comfortable distance with a rifle and scope. They also can hold safari-style hunts for guests, sometimes for a fee, during the fall hunting season.

That's South Carolina law and was considered part of the management of the protected species that was hunted and poached for generations, until it was returned from the point of extinction in the Southeast.

Private land owners apply for state "tags" to kill gators during the season; the fee is $10 per alligator.

It's a sharp contrast to the public hunt, where people have 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.

One in every three alligators killed during the public-hunt season last year was killed on a private, riverside plantation -- a total 225 gators. Berkeley County plantations led the private hunt with 66 alligators, 30 percent of the statewide total.

Three of every four of those animals were killed at one plantation, Buck Hall.

The private land provision was added to the alligator hunting law by Rep. David Umphlett, R-Moncks Corner, who said at the time that it would help large property owners control the number of gators. Umphlett is a part-owner of Buck Hall.

"I don't see a thing wrong with what we're doing," he said last week. "We own our land. We've got an investment we're trying to protect."

Not everyone agrees. Some hunters said the difference in cost, kills and weapons between the public and private hunt smells like a privilege for private land owners.

"It just seems a little unfair. It draws up all kinds of questions, and most people don't have a clue about it," said Shawn Adkins, of Ladson, one of the hunters who enters the public permit blind draw.

"If nothing else, the law ought to be changed to put a restriction on the number of (private-land) tags they buy during the season, to limit the tags according to water acreage."

The restriction, Adkins said, would be similar to a current limit on doe deer tags for hunt clubs, based on hunting acreage.

"I don't disagree with (private land owners) being able to hunt," said hunting outfitter Brad Taylor, of Taylor Outdoors in Batesburg. "I think it's a little unfair that they get to do it in their own way. I think it needs to be regulated rather than just letting it run wild."

He also has concerns about the safety of using hunting rifles alongside public waters where people might be fishing, he said.

"The biggest thing is there are two sets of playing rules and the public doesn't know about it," said Ron Russell, of Gator Getter Consultants, who traps nuisance alligators and hunts them himself.

"We have to get close to the gator. They can sit 150 yards away with a high-powered rifle and shoot the things. It's not fair to the average hunter."

Alligators in the state and across the Southeast recovered in the past few decades under federal Endangered Species Act protection. State hunting resumed in 1995, when they were controlled largely by removing "nuisance" gators under a permitted system of individual kills.

In recent years, the animals' prevalence and size began to be seen as a menace to people who live near waterways, and hunting proponents used that concern to push through a law in 2008 that opened the public hunting season.

Wildlife officials maintain that there are more than 100,000 alligators in the state, and people who frequent their waters said the population is larger and growing.

An S.C. Natural Resources Department habitat survey in 2009 counted 200 alligators on the Cooper River in less than three hours.

The state issues 1,000 permits per year for the public hunt. Fewer than 1,000 alligators per year have been taken in public and private hunts for the past two years.

Buck Hall has 300 acres of ricefields separated from the Cooper River by a levee. On a 2005 count of alligators on the property, Umphlett said he quit counting at 500.

Since the alligators have re-populated, snakes and turtles have disappeared, and even bream fishing has become a problem, he said, because the gators come up so close to the boat you can tap their heads with the rod.

Riverside plantation owners along the East and West Cooper and through the ACE Basin in Colleton County face the same dilemma, he said.

"When a female alligator hatches, she produces 40-50 offspring. What we remove is not even a drop in the bucket. We're not even cutting down the numbers," Umphlett said.

Jay Butfiloski, a DNR project supervisor for alligators and furbearers, said the private and public hunts aren't comparable. The aim of the private-lands permit is management, he said; the public hunt permit is to provide a recreational opportunity. The system is similar to what's used in other states.

"There's a lot of difference between a recreational opportunity and providing a property owner a means to manage a species," he said.

State legislators this year refined the alligator hunting law to stipulate that people who are given a depredation permit to remove a nuisance alligator aren't allowed to sell or trade that permit.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said he added the amendment at the requests of S.C. Natural Resources officials.

"They didn't want people applying for a nuisance permit and selling (the permit) or conducting hunts. They shouldn't be selling the permit for sport," Grooms said. The ban doesn't apply to private-land tags.

Fee-paid hunts are conducted with the public permits too, Umphlett said, and outfitters can make $1,000-$2,000 per alligator guiding people. At Buck Hall, only shareholders, or part-owners of the plantation, hunt for alligators because the owners don't want to pay the extra insurance to hold hunts, he said.

The plantation works from a DNR list of recommended sizes to harvest. They snare alligators first, to make sure they have the proper size. Shooters keep their back to the Cooper River, as a safety measure, Umphlett said.

Russell, who manages alligator populations for subdivisions with large water tracts, said that 300 acres of ricefields don't support 500 mature alligators, unless the alligators are coming over from the adjacent Cooper River.

"I don't have a problem with (private land owners) receiving permits. I have a problem when the hunting affects the population in public waters," Russell said. "If he continues to shoot 50 alligators a year, he's going to decimate the (river) population."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.