Around Hyde County, North Carolina’s sparsely populated coastal tip with more water than dry land, the towns are buzzing about alligators — meat-eating reptiles that can grow 14 feet long.
For years, news accounts have described them lumbering across rural highways or crawling into people’s garages, but starting Sept. 1, people in three Hyde County towns will be able to take action not legal in 45 years.
An alligator hunt.
By Thursday afternoon, more than 750 people had applied for only 20 permits to stalk the beasts from September to Oct. 1, said Alicia Davis, wildlife diversity biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
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Though the likelihood of snagging a $250 license by computerized lottery rivals the odds of securing tickets to “Hamilton” in Durham, hunters are all throwing in for a chance before Friday’s application cutoff.
“Everybody has that I know of,” said J.C. Williams at Swan Quarter Supply and Tackle, reached by telephone Thursday.
Alligator sightings in the town of 324 are so common that, he said, “I can go see one anytime I want to.”
“Just doesn’t interest me much,” he said.
In 2017, the state commission approved an alligator management plan aimed at conservation, education and research, but also allowing a one-month hunting season by permit only.
In its plan, the state described the alligator population stretching just north of Albemarle Sound and as far west as Robeson County. And though census numbers are hard to pin down, the plan cited calls seeking the commission’s help with alligators rising from around 25 in 2010 to about 145 in 2017.
Still, the state’s report describes alligators as solitary and shy. No fatal alligator attacks are known in North Carolina.
In Wilmington, it’s common for “critter control” businesses to catch and relocate gators that have occupied retention ponds on golf courses and in retirement communities, especially in Brunswick County.
One of them, Jimmy English of Wildlife Removal Service, continued to grab up wandering alligators well into his 70s, luring them with marshmallows.
“I’m doing it for the poor, disoriented gators,” he told The News & Observer in 2004. “They’re just as maladjusted to the times as me.”
At Dare to Hyde Adventures, hunting guides lead parties over land covering roughly 30,000 acres where alligators are a common sight, Chase Luker, who works there, told the N&O Thursday.
“They don’t necessarily bother anybody,” he said. “Stay out of their way.”
Still, neither Dare to Hyde Adventures nor nearby Capt. Froggy’s Hunting and Fishing Guides will lead alligator adventures, being set up for waterfowl, deer or bear.
“I’m not sure that we can, to be honest,” Luker said. “They’re in small places, canals and ditches. ... A lot of it is tough to access.”
The state said those who secure a permit, and then a gator hunting license through the lottery system, can hunt between Sept. 1 and Oct. 1. There are 5 permits for designated areas around Swan Quarter; another 5 for Fairfield; and 10 for Engelhard.
The limit for the season is one alligator per permittee, who will be required to fill out a harvest survey and allow the wildlife commission to collect biological data, according to the state’s rules.
Davis, with the commission, said the first Endangered Species Act included the American alligator, but hunting was not a federal crime until 1973, making this the first hunt in 45 years.
“I caught one when I was 17 and almost went to prison for it,” said Williams in Swan Quarter. “That’s the truth. I was lucky. The feds came after me and turned him loose.”
The state’s alligator plan allowed municipal governments to request a limited “take” should the reptile population grow too large. So far, Davis said, Hyde County is the only government to do so. Lake Waccamaw considered the option but decided against it, Davis said, and small-town Belville in Brunswick County responded with a hunting ban earlier this year.
As the permit deadline nears, the alligators hunker, eyes shining in the dark, awaiting what fate will come.
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