Big alligators are still hanging around Beaufort County even though elsewhere in the Lowcountry some worry the state's hunting season has started to eradicate the older, larger reptiles.
Wildlife-control experts in the area say they still encounter many alligators longer than 10 feet -- ones that are usually the most successful breeders and help ensure populations won't disappear.
"There's still plenty of big gators around," said Harvey Dunn, owner of Southern Critter Removal in Bluffton.
More than 100,000 alligators are estimated to live in the state, but hard numbers are difficult to come by, and no one knows just how many breeding-age alligators are out there.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources report for 2012 says the number of large alligators harvested appears to be dwindling, and interest in hunting them appears to be leveling out as the bigger gators become harder to find.
"I'm sure it won't be long before we're back to protecting them if we keep hammering them like we're doing," said Ron Russell, a Charleston-area nuisance-alligator trapper and gator hunter.
Russell also manages the reptiles' populations for Lowcountry subdivisions with large water tracts. He is careful to maintain a few larger animals when he can, he said.
"This is not a white-tailed deer. This is an animal that takes a long time to mature. A 9-footer could be 30 years old. We can't replace him, not in my lifetime," Russell said.
The state's one-month public hunt season -- adopted five years ago out of concern the alligator population was growing too large -- opens Sept. 14. "Nuisance alligators," those that show up too close to people, are removed and killed regularly by wildlife management firms from May through October.
Meanwhile, state legislators have expanded the private landowner management program from 45 days to nine months. The law allows plantation-scale landowners to kill alligators to control their numbers, as long as they obtain a $10 tag for each animal. Those kills also tend to be larger alligators.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, whose district includes parts of Beaufort County, sponsored the legislation. The idea is to give landowners more time to cull problem gators, he said.
Campsen doesn't agree that big gators are disappearing. He hunts in the ACE Basin and said he hasn't seen the population dwindle.
Bigger gators can still be found around Beaufort County, especially in gated communities, according to Cliff Boatright, who owns Tracks Wildlife Control in Beaufort. Since hunting isn't allowed in those communities, larger gators that aren't aggressive are essentially protected, he said.
And Dunn, of Southern Critter Removal, says he knows where to find such gators.
There's a 13-footer in Port Royal Plantation on Hilton Head, and he knows of three 12-foot and a few 10-foot gators on Daufuskie Island.
There are also plenty of large gators in protected areas like the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, where Dunn hunts hogs every year. Alligator hunting is prohibited in the refuge.
Killing the largest alligators can hurt their population, Dunn said, but as long as there are still protected wildlife areas, gators will avoid dramatic dips in population.
"There's plenty of gators out there," Dunn said. "There's so many still that people don't see, that I don't think it will hurt the population where we won't have none."
Bo Petersen of The (Charleston) Post and Courier contributed to this report. Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.
- Woman bitten by gator still in shock, disbelief, Aug. 15, 2013
- Alligator shot repeatedly with arrows on Hilton Head ; DNR investigating, July 22, 2013
- Shipyard Plantation working to protect alligators and people, June 24, 2012
Are bigger gators disappearing?
S.C. alligator harvest
Public hunt: 982 tags, 465 alligators taken, 150 were 10 feet or longer.
Private land management: 608 tags, 296 alligators taken, 36 were 10 feet or longer.
Public hunt: 1,060 tags, 472 alligators taken, 172 were 10 feet or longer.
Private land management: 574 tags, 220 alligators, 27 were 10 feet or longer.
Public hunt: 1,047 tags, 473 alligators taken, 167 were 10 feet or longer.
Private land: 542 tags, 228 alligators, 35 were 10 feet or longer.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources