Alligator hunting season starts next month in North Carolina for the first time since 1973. Only Hyde County in the northeastern part of the state applied – after officials offered ten counties and their municipalities the option of an alligator population reduction hunt.
While there won’t be any hunting in the Cape Fear region, as the region grows, more people will have to learn how to live with these animals.
"We’re walking around the Battleship here on the Cape Fear River in Wilmington."
Chris Kent is a Wildlife Biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. He says he regularly sees alligators in the marshy areas around this popular tourist draw.
"I’ve been told over the years that many people feed the alligators here. Currently it is against the law to feed alligators because they are a federally protected species. It’s just a bad idea."
Three or four frequent this area – ranging from small to medium -- to at least one, says Kent, that’s ten to twelve feet long.
"Hopefully we’ll get to see one over here…"
We don’t on this particular day – which is emblematic of the difficulty biologists have in studying alligators in their northernmost habitat.
These reptiles were so sought-after by hunters in the early- to mid- part of the 20th century that they landed on the first Endangered Species list in 1967. Six years later, the Federal Government passed a law making it illegal to hunt or harass species on that list.
"Is their population now what it was in the 1950s?
"We don’t know that. I suspect it’s probably not rebounded fully. But what has happened is the human population has grown nearly exponentially along our coast and development has happened at a nearly exponential level as well. There’s more people on the landscape to come in contact with alligators."
Stacy is one of those people. She lives in a Brunswick County subdivision in Leland where there are two large ponds near the main road. Alligators are frequently visible during the warmer months in both.
"I’d take ‘em out. Being a residential area, I don’t think there’s a place for them. I understand that this is their habitat…But once you start building, I think it becomes the HOA’s and the residents’ choice to do what they want with them."
She says there are lots of remote places to take them. After relocating herself from Connecticut – decidedly not gator habitat – she was surprised to find them here. And she worries that she and her dog are at risk walking around the ponds.
Josh lives in the same neighborhood but grew up in nearby Boiling Spring Lakes, also home to an alligator population. Despite his two small children and young dog, Josh says he’s unconcerned.
"They don’t really bother me. They’re not generally aggressive. If you feed ‘em they get used to people and kind of watch for people. But no they’re not really aggressive – not that I’ve been around."
Wildlife Biologist Chris Kent says his agency is eager to learn more about how alligators in the state travel, whether they’re part of closed populations, and how these animals grow and reproduce in a colder climate.
"An animal grows when it eats. There's been scientific research to show that once the colder weather sets in that alligators stop feeding. There’s some differences in opinion as to what temperature that actually is. The colder it is, the slower they are. They might not do a true hibernation."
They’ll do something called brumation – slowing their metabolism down in a hibernation-like state.
That means a six-foot alligator in North Carolina is probably about 15 years old, according to Kent’s estimates. Males don’t start mating until they’re twelve to fifteen; females don’t reproduce until they’re between fifteen and eighteen years old. That’s one of the reasons the Town of Belville declared itself an alligator sanctuary and opted out of hunting this year.
Kent says when if an alligator is harvested during this year’s hunt, his agency will collect scientific data.
"At the very least, we would measure the animal, determine whether it was a male or a female, perhaps weigh the animal. We would take a tissue sample for DNA analysis."
Hunting season for Hyde County in the unincorporated areas of Fairfield, Swan Quarter, and Engelhard, runs from September 1st to October 1st.
But it’s Brunswick that is the fastest-growing county in North Carolina. As developers expand into what has been wildlife habitat, more people encounter alligators. Chris Kent of the Wildlife Resources Commission says more encounters don’t necessarily mean people are less safe.
"I only know of three people in our state in the last 50 years that have been bitten by an alligator and my understanding is all three of those people were either feeding or trying to catch the alligator – both of which is illegal. So had those three people left the animal alone, they would not have gotten bitten."
Stacy lives in the Brunswick County Town of Leland, and she’s new to North Carolina and alligators. In her opinion, these animals don’t belong in neighborhood retention ponds.
"If you know they’re in there – get rid of ‘em."
That’s not sustainable, says Kent, not just for alligator management itself – but because alligators are beneficial to the environment.
"An animal like an alligator can help bring balance to the ecosystem in many ways. Up in the swamps and up in the salt marshes and tidal marshes, later in the season they may wallow out these big holes in the muck on the bottom. During droughts, those gator wallows create habitat for fish and turtles. They control populations of nuisance animals. They do a lot of good things in the environment."