Whether she’s at Greenfield Lake or near the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Terri Chabot knows a tail slap means she’s found herself a little too close to an alligator.
Earlier this month, Chabot, who lives in Kure Beach, was walking near the pond behind the aquarium when she heard the familiar “thwap.” After spotting the gator, which promptly fled, Chabot dubbed it “Aquarius” because of its proximity to the attraction.
“I’ve never been threatened by one,” she said. “Any time where I’ve been anywhere near one, if I haven’t seen them with my own eyes I’ve heard the tail slap. I’ve always been given a fair warning.”
With population sprawling across much of the state’s area known to shelter the American alligator, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission wants to better understand when and where people spot alligators. And, said Allen Boynton, the organization’s Wildlife Diversity Program coordinator, it wants the public’s help.
Residents or visitors who see alligators in the wild can snap a picture on their smartphone and upload it to the N.C. Alligators section of the iNaturalist app or website, www.inaturalist.org. North Carolina is the northern edge of the American alligator’s habitat, with the reptile seen most frequently in the state’s warmer southeastern corner and around the Croatan National Forest.
“As our human population grows, we are building homes in new areas … areas that are rural and have alligators in them,” Boynton said. “So people are interacting with alligators more.”
Employees who help members of the public asking for help with wild animals have, Boynton said, reported spending more time with alligator calls.
Such calls included a 2016 incident in which a family found an alligator in their garage on Coree Way off Catfish Lake Road just west of Havelock. A large gator was spotted off U.S. 17 near the Craven-Jones county line. It was disrupting traffic, and wildlife officials relocated it to a more remote location.
Also last year, a 6-foot gator was spotted outside the West End Fire Station in Havelock, and another large gator was spotted roaming parts of western Havelock for about two weeks in 2014 before wildlife officers caught up with it in the Hickman Hills area, captured it and relocated it.
“We’ve been getting information from people that are having problems with alligators,” Boynton said. “A lot of people see alligators, are interested in them, want to go take pictures and they don’t ever call us about it because they don’t have a problem. We want to get information from them, too.”
Next week, the wildlife commission will likely release draft recommendations from its N.C. Alligator Task Force, which hosted a series of meetings across the state last fall. Among the topics the group was tasked with addressing were developing the framework of an alligator management plan, identifying where alligators may be over populated, and identifying unanswered questions about the state’s alligator populations.
Chris Moorman, the coordinator of N.C. State University’s Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Program, headed the research team that conducted the most recent survey of the state’s alligators.
The counts, conducted in 2012 and 2013, showed alligator populations had remained stable or increased since the previous effort was published in 1986. Some hot spots included the Lake Ellis Simon, located west of Havelock in the Croatan National Forest, where researchers found 53 gators, up from 33 in the last study, and Brunswick County’s Orton Pond, which had increased from 40 to 79 alligators.
“Alligators are most abundant in the south and eastern portion of the state and in those bodies of water where they’re protected,” Moorman said, adding, “In other areas, they’re just absent over huge expanses.”
Even with the estimated improvements in the population, Moorman and his team said managing alligators is tricky because the state represents the northern-most border of the species’ range, resulting in lower densities. Alligators do remain on the threatened species list because of their resemblance to the American crocodile.
“We have to be careful about how we treat alligators in North Carolina,” Moorman said. “We know from research that was conducted about 30 years ago that alligators grow more slowly in North Carolina than further south.”
Many questions about North Carolina’s alligators remain unanswered, he added, including what happens to them when they are relocated, whether the cooler climates in North Carolina lead to more females since temperature can determine the animals’ sex, and how long it takes the state’s gators to become reproductive.
Amid the lingering questions, one piece of advice remains universal — don’t feed an alligator.
“It’s a really bad idea,” Boynton said, “because alligators, the way they catch prey — and they’re carnivores — is they appear relatively slow or lethargic but are capable of moving very quickly to catch a raccoon or a fawn or turtle or a bird or something. ... (If they’re fed,) alligators lose their fear of people and they’ll come closer.”