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Gator tale

North Santee River yields 13-foot, 800-lb. prize for hunters

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

After three nights spent prowling over the dark waters of the North Santee River in a fishing boat, David Buck made a sudden announcement.

“I’m shooting him,” he said.

With a bow and arrow, he helped bring down a 13-foot, 1-inch American alligator. The length from the top of its head to the tip of its nose was 22 inches.

“I was shaking. I think we were all shaking,” he said.

Buck was in the boat with Justin Lankford, 22, and Mick Lankford, 17, both Hagley residents and experienced gator hunters.

But they’ve never killed one that size.

When Buck shot the second arrow, it pierced the gator between two of the small bones called osteoderms covering its back. The approximately 800-pound, 75-year-old gator was so big and strong it pulled the buoy attached to the rope and arrow underneath the water as it tried to remove the obstruction on its back.

After two-and-a-half hours, Justin shot it in the head with his pistol and tried to drag it into the boat.

That was a mistake. The gator’s jaws snapped open and bit the boat, breaking a tooth in its mouth, tearing two spots in its jaws and cracking a small part of the 14-foot jon boat.

When they were sure the gator was dead, they dragged it to shore and hefted it into the boat. By the time they returned to the Lankfords’ home, it was 5 a.m.

After a few hours of sleep, the guys were outside with their prize draped over the tailgate of a pickup truck.

Last year, only 11 of the alligators killed in the state were 13 feet or larger. The average size was 9 feet, 2 inches. The largest was 13 feet, 7 inches, only six inches larger than the Lankford’s gator.

The Lankfords and Buck were three of the 1,000 hunters who won the state’s lottery to hunt during the alligator season, Sept. 12 through Oct. 10. Only alligators that are four feet or larger can be killed.

To have a ticket to kill, hunters must follow other rules, as well. The gator can’t be basking or free swimming. Hunters cannot use rifles, baited hooks, set hooks or poles. The state only allows use of handguns and bangsticks.

“We had a few issues last year,” said Jay Butfiloski, the alligator coordinator for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“It pertained mainly to people not following the regulations as far as the dispatch of the alligator. They were shooting 15, 18 times. If you follow the regulations that should not occur.”

The Lankfords were careful to follow directions, they said. They even want to donate the skin to a museum or environmental center, but they’ll keep the tail and jaw meat. It tastes like pork chops, Justin said. The carcass will go into the landfill.

The white skin on alligators’ bellies used to be popular for handbags and other accessories. It was so popular that hunters reduced the number of American alligators until they were on the verge of extinction.

After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the American alligator on the endangered species list in 1967, the population rebounded. Now, American alligators have a threatened classification.

“The reason they’re listed as threatened, is they’re threatened due to similarity of appearance,” Butfiloski said.

Since alligators and American crocodiles are similar in appearance, the government lists gators as threatened in order to control the international crocodile skin trade.

“Someone could try to slip some American crocodile hides in with alligator hides,” Butfiloski said.

But, as a threatened creature, states can still run tightly controlled hunting programs.

South Carolina’s hunting lottery system began in 2008. Under rules the state’s Department of Natural Resources created, residents can apply for one of 1,000 tickets to kill a gator.

According to Dean Cain, a regional biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, there are 200,000 to 250,000 alligators in South Carolina.

“The alligator is certainly well secure in South Carolina,” Butfiloski said. “We wanted to allow some harvest and some utilization of the resource.”

He said the department also hoped a regular harvest of brazen alligators would decrease some of the nuisance complaints it gets.

Justin and his father, Mickey, handle some nuisance complaints with their company, Carolina Exterminators. That’s how Justin and Mick knew how to catch and kill one, they said.

When the lottery started last year, the Lankfords applied for tickets and killed a 12-foot 4-inch gator.

Only 250 people in four regions of the state, the Southern Coast, Middle Coast, Pee Dee and Midlands, got tickets. To apply for a ticket, hunters pay a $10 nonrefundable application fee and apply in person at a natural resources office or online at the department’s Web site. If they are selected through a random computer drawing they pay $100.

The fees go to the state’s Alligator Management Program research and management activities. They also support conservation efforts for the American alligator in South Carolina.

Last year, 1,400 people applied. Of the ticket holders in 2008, 789 completed their paperwork to hunt and 362 alligators were killed.

“We’re talking about less than one percent of the total population. This removal has nothing to do whatsoever with the health of the overall populations,” said Mark Bara, a retired regional biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Butfiloski expects similar numbers this year. The department already has recorded 200 kills.

“If you want to protect something, let them hunt it,” Butfiloski said. “Several years ago when you couldn’t touch them, there got to be a lot of conflicts where people either loved them or hated them,” he said.

Now that people can touch alligators, he hopes hunters will appreciate the creatures.

“The habitat and these animals are gifts. They’re sacred, and they merit respect,” Bara said.

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