For local hunters looking for a challenge, a new state law has added alligators to the list of possible prey.
Gov. Mark Sanford signed a bill Feb. 19 creating an alligator hunting season that will start the first Saturday in September and end the first Saturday in October. State law requires hunters to restrain a gator with a rope, snare or wire noose before shooting it.
But in the Town of Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island, the new hunting season would not apply. Local ordinances prohibiting firearm discharges would trump state law.
In Beaufort County, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his only concern is the potential ricochet of a bullet off the water.
"Alligators are extremely dangerous and you could lose your life if you approach an alligator," Tanner said. "As long as it's (the hunting season) properly regulated and we've got some checks and balances, it may not be that bad but it must be controlled."
The state plans to model its new hunting season after those in Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. Those states issue thousands of permits each year and estimate their alligator populations total more than 1 million. The programs have been successful and attacks on hunters have been few or nonexistent, according to those states' officials.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources intends to offer training workshops to novice alligator hunters, but won't require attendance. DNR will issue 250 permits that hunters may apply for online. Hunters will be selected randomly and allowed to kill one gator.
The new law was first introduced by Sen. Larry Grooms of Charleston, who'd been trying to pass it for six years. Grooms lives on Lake Moultrie where alligators have attacked humans and eaten pets.
"It was only after an incident where an alligator chewed a man's arm off (last year), that the House offered their support," Grooms said. Alligator "habitat is no longer able to support their populations.
Now they are moving in(to) other areas."
American alligators were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1987. DNR estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 gators live along the state's coast.
Under current law, alligators are removable through the nuisance alligator program. Landowners apply for permits and the state issues them tags for a certain number of alligators. The landowner can then remove the alligator alone or contract with companies like Critter Management. The program requires the alligators be killed.
In 1995, the state created another program for use on private lands, which allowed landowners with 100 acres or more of alligator habitat to hunt the reptiles. Once landowners enroll, DNR surveys the property and issues tags for alligators of a particular size, depending on the area.
Under the new state law, the private lands program no longer carries a 100-acre minimum. It also allows hunters to shoot alligators swimming in the water, but they must be retrieved using the rope, snare or wire noose. Applications cost $10, plus $10 per tag. The tags allow DNR to track how many alligators have been killed.
"This program is designed for people with sizable acreage," said Derrell Shipes, chief of statewide projects for DNR. "It's not for the farm pond owner."
Shipes said the goal is not to eliminate alligators, but to manage them on properties where there might be too many or where they are causing damage.
"When these animals get 10 feet long, there is nothing in their environment except humans that threaten them," Shipes said. "If humans weren't around, there would be nothing for them to be afraid of. Everything eats them when they are little, including big alligators, but when they get big, they are at the top."