The first survey of alligators in coastal North Carolina in nearly 30 years shows the reptile’s populations are stable or increasing, particularly from New Bern to Wilmington.
But the slow-growing gators could be vulnerable to hunting, and a harvest may send overall numbers falling by removing females from the population.
That’s the conclusion from researchers at N.C. State University who assessed whether a hunting season would be sustainable in a recent study for the Wildlife Resources Commission.
The reason cited is that alligators, at their northern limits here, don’t grow and reproduce at the pace of their cousins in the warmer Florida and Louisiana states. Females here don’t reproduce until they are 18-20 years old, or perhaps older, as compared to 10 years in Louisiana.
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And hunters typically take both males and females, since the sexes look alike. Gators over 10 feet in length are nearly always males, but those under 10 feet can be either sex.
“Our modeling exercise showed that even low levels of female harvest would cause populations to transition from stable or slightly increasing to a state of decline,” concluded co-principal investigators, professor Chris Moorman and assistant professor Beth Gardner, along with graduate student Lindsey Garner.
The report is scheduled to be presented in March to the full Wildlife Resources Commission, which can lift state protection of alligators and allow hunting.
“It is my understanding while the Wildlife Resources Commission has received the N.C. State University report on the American alligator at the northern extent of its range, it has not yet been formally presented to staff,” commission spokesman Geoff Cantrell said Wednesday.
Of the nine states with significant gator populations, North Carolina is the only one that doesn’t allow hunting. South Carolina began public hunts in 2008; Arkansas, at the reptile’s northwestern range, lets hunters take up to 70 gators a year.
In North Carolina, it’s against the law to shoot, harass or feed alligators. The commission routinely issues news releases warning people not to feed gators, which can increase the likelihood of attacks as wild gators lose their fear of humans.
Moorman said their survey covered a similar compilation of lakes, rivers and swamps in 25 counties as the survey published in 1986 did. Garner coordinated the counts with Wildlife Resources Commission biologists and enforcement officers. The researchers cruised waterways at night in June 2012 to determine gator presence along 827 miles of shoreline, shining a spotlight to reveal the red eye-shine of gators. They counted 117 on 103 routes.
In June 2013, they focused on the most productive gator hangouts to determine abundance. The researchers estimated 672 gators on 43 routes, using a statistical model to estimate animals hidden, along with those actually seen.
The teams found abundant populations in protected water bodies like Lake Ellis Simon near Havelock, with 53 gators counted, compared to 33 in the early 1980s; and Orton Pond south of Wilmington, with 79 gators counted, compared to 40 in the early 1980s. Orton Pond, a 500-acre lake in Brunswick County, has one of the greatest gator densities in the state.
Distribution through coastal counties was termed patchy, with clusters of alligators in decreasing density moving from south to north. The northernmost gators live in Merchants Millpond State Park near the Virginia line, though it’s not clear whether they were introduced to the area or moved in naturally.
Another northern colony resides in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare and Hyde counties, just west of the Outer Banks. Refuge biologist Dennis Stewart said the population “appears to be healthy, is reproducing, as is evident from the young, small alligators we observe.”
Moorman, coordinator of N.C. State’s fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology program, said he couldn’t estimate the state’s overall population. He said the survey didn’t try to tabulate all possible gators. They’ve shown up in recent years in inland waters as far west as Harnett County, which is between Raleigh and Fayetteville.
An alligator hunting season could manage growing populations and potential nuisance gators, offer a hunting opportunity to sportsmen and sportswomen, and provide revenue from permit sales to fund the monitoring of populations.
Nevertheless, “alligators in North Carolina may be more vulnerable to environmental stochasticity (randomness), including harsh winters and frequent hurricanes, than elsewhere, so predicting long-term effects of a sustained hunter harvest is especially difficult,” the researchers cautioned.
The report said alligators were most abundant in areas where they are most protected, including military bases, national forests and private property with restricted access to water bodies.
“Accordingly, these protected areas should be considered as focal areas for long-term alligator conservation efforts in North Carolina,” the researchers noted.
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns: The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”