Service expands hunt, fish opportunities at refuges throughout the Southeast
Savannah, Georgia — The Savannah River was running high after a wet spring, but they were out there somewhere, up the tidal creeks or in watery holes dug to avoid the day’s heat.
“They’re hidden pretty good,” said Greg Blanks, the senior wildlife officer for the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, as he maneuvered a jon boat alongside Abercorn Island. “But you’ll see them at night when their eyes give them away.”
The American alligator is North America’s largest reptile, a ferocious predator with bony scales and vise-like jaws. It was on the brink of extinction until placed under federal protection in 1967. The alligator rebounded nicely and today more than 200,000 call Georgia home. State wildlife officials offered the first alligator hunt in 2003.
Now, for the first time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is allowing alligator hunting on the Savannah refuge and Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Valdosta. It’s all part of the Service’s efforts to expand hunting and fishing at refuges and fish hatcheries across the nation. On August 18, the agency officially boosted hunting and fishing opportunities at 147 refuges and hatcheries from Maine to Florida to Alaska. In all, the Trump administration has opened 4 million additional acres for the rod and gun crowd.
Hunting and fishing generate millions of dollars in revenue for states each year via the sale of licenses, tags and excise taxes on firearms, ammo and sport fishing equipment. The money helps state wildlife agencies manage their public lands and at-risk species. The rising popularity of alligator hunting will boost wildlife management. Georgia, for example, receives more than five times as many permit requests to hunt alligators today than 15 years ago.
“People are always trying to feed them”
Jack Douglas, aka Trapper Jack, knows alligators about as well as anybody in Georgia. He’s hunted gators – of the nuisance variety, mostly, the ones that crawl too close to a popular pond, dock or pool – for three decades. He lives in Savannah, but traps on both sides of the same-name river. Opening day in Georgia for gator hunters was August 14. The season ends October 5. (South Carolina’s season runs from September 12 to October 10.) Adding the Savannah refuge that straddles both states will likely make for a bountiful harvest along Georgia’s hundred-mile coast.
“This season will be just like hunting was that first season,” said Douglas, 71. “You’ve just got more to choose from and the alligators won’t be as spooked because they haven’t had lights shined on them.”
He added, laughing, “But then they’ll learn.”
American alligators have been around for 200 million years, yet only in the 20th century did people come close to eliminating the species. Habitat loss, and consumers’ penchant for gator-skinned handbags and shoes, about wiped out the warm-weather animals in the 1950s. They were listed as endangered under a law that preceded the landmark Endangered Species Act of 1973. Within 15 years, though, the population returned to health and alligators were no longer considered endangered – a true species success story. Alligators today roam the Southeast, from the Carolinas to Texas and north to Arkansas.
Like all creatures, gators serve a useful ecological purpose. They help maintain their habitat’s balance of prey. They also dig holes during drought for survival, a neighborly gesture that benefits other animals and plants. Yet people fear and revile alligators.
“Many good people believe that alligators were created by the Devil, thus accounting for their all-consuming appetite and ugliness,” wrote famed naturalist and explorer John Muir, who was afraid of the beasts during his walk across the South in 1867. “But doubtless these creatures are happy and fill the place assigned them by the great Creator of us all.”
Their size – upwards of twelve-feet long with powerful tails and menacing visages – fascinates the viewing public. The Savannah refuge’s popular Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive, a four-mile meander along earthen dikes, freshwater impoundments and hardwood hammocks, draws thousands of visitors each year to gawk at dozens of alligators sunning on the mud flats or floating in the canals. These gators, though, are off-limits to hunters.
In 2003, the first year Georgia allowed an alligator hunt, 2,560 hunters applied for a gator permit. Only 184 were granted and 72 alligators were harvested. Last year, 16,801 hunters wanted a gator. The state granted 1,000 permits and 326 alligators were taken.
Trapper Jack guides maybe ten hunters per season, many from Florida. They’ll hit the Altamaha and Ogeechee rivers, as well as ponds on private property.
“We’ve always had good luck on the Savannah River, by the sugar refinery straight across from the refuge,” said Douglas who has trapped maybe 5,000 gators. “People are always trying to feed them so that makes ‘em a little bolder and easier (to hunt). But up against the refuge, you got a lot of good gators there too.”
“Their eyes will give them away”
Two years ago, the Service set about expanding hunting and fishing opportunities nationwide. Last year, hunters and anglers gained more access to 10 refuges and two hatcheries across the South, a total of 125,000 additional acres. This year, the Service is expanding access on 22 refuges — and another 500,000 Southern acres.
In addition, more than 110 new or expanded hunting and fishing opportunities — new species, acres, and times to hunt and fish — will be offered to more closely align federal and state rules.
Hunters will also find more opportunities to bag armadillos, beavers, opossums and raccoons on the Georgia side of the Savannah refuge. In South Carolina , in addition to new alligator opportunities at the Savannah refuge, hunters can take coyotes while hunting other animals at the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge.
At the Eufaula refuge in Georgia, dove, duck and goose hunters can now hunt more days and more hours each day in Georgia. There’s also more dove opportunities on the Alabama side of the refuge.
Until now, hunters were only allowed to trap gators on “the navigable waters” of the Savannah River (and three creeks surrounding Abercorn Island). They couldn’t traipse across refuge property in search of prey, nor carry their quarry across the refuge. Now, as long as they stay north of Interstate 95, hunters can wander the refuge at will – even at night.
“Some will hunt in the daytime; some in the nighttime,” said Blanks, the refuge wildlife officer. “It’s easier to spot an alligator at night. They’re nocturnal. They do most of their hunting at night. Shine a light on ‘em and their eyes will give them away.”
A federal permit to hunt on the refuge costs $25, which is good for one season and covers all hunts on all of the Savannah complex’s various units, including Harris Neck and Blackbeard. Otherwise, hunters must adhere to Georgia or South Carolina rules. Each state runs quota hunts, requires a state permit and valid license for everybody on the boat (unless they’re younger than 15). Both allow only one alligator per permit. And the gator must be at least four feet long.
Both states also outline the proper way to harvest an alligator with Georgia, in a hunt brochure, allowing that “there is an element of danger involved with the process.” Approach quietly. Shine a spotlight (if night hunting) directly in or just above their eyes. Restrain – via rope, snare, harpoon, gig, arrow or saltwater fishing rod with treble hook – the alligator first before bringing alongside the boat and dispatching with a handgun or bang stick.
“You can’t just openly shoot an alligator like you see on Swamp People,” Blanks said while scanning the banks of the Savannah River. “We don’t want people riding down the river and shooting alligators. If they wound one, they can’t just go and get another one. This way is more ethical.”
Yet still dangerous.
“NEVER ASSUME THAT ANY ALLIGATOR IS DEAD,” Georgia warns.