Large alligator's release to be investigated, DNR official says

mmcnab@islandpacket.comJune 4, 2014 

A local alligator wrangler's decision Sunday to release a 12-foot gator into the New River in Jasper County is under investigation by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The relocation of the gator found on Hilton Head Island violated DNR protocol, which says nuisance alligators should be killed instead of relocated, DNR wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal said Wednesday.

Joe Maffo of Critter Management caught the alligator early Saturday near Union Cemetery Road on Hilton Head and first released it in Skull Creek. The gator returned the next day to Hilton Head, and Maffo then relocated it.

Maffo said the gator was the largest he had ever encountered in his 32 years on Hilton Head, estimating it weighed more than 1,000 pounds and was more than 50 years old.

Maffo said he made an "error in judgment" in releasing the alligator instead of killing it.

An alligator is deemed to be a nuisance -- and must be destroyed -- if it poses a risk to people, pets or property, Harrigal said. In this case, the alligator was a nuisance because it had made its way into the road and was a hazard to traffic, Harrigal said.

Maffo said he thought the alligator was merely on the move to find a mate because it is breeding season, and he didn't think it needed to be killed. Typically, alligators determined to be nuisances have been fed by people and associate humans with food, making the reptiles dangerous, he said.

He said that while moving the gator, several people stopped to tell him not to kill it, and that he would have received more complaints if he had killed the animal.

Dropping the alligator in the New River near Levy didn't sit well with nearby resident Carol Hewson, who blasted the decision in an email to Critter Management that was also shared with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

"I simply cannot imagine the lack of judgment used in placing such an animal in that river. ... If he was a nuisance at Hilton Head, he is a nuisance for us," the email read.

Hewson said the area of the river where the alligator was dropped is commonly used for swimming, fishing and crabbing.

"To be so inconsiderate of our local population is, I find, very disturbing," she said. "If Hilton Head residents wish to preserve nuisance alligators, they should make places available for them in Beaufort County."

Maffo said he released the alligator in a rural area, with no homes within a mile. He expected it to head toward the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, about a mile from where it was released, to seek a mate.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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