Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Increased development leads to more human-alligator interactions

As human population increases and the alligator's habitat becomes more developed, human-alligator interactions are on the rise

Jimmy English, the go-to man in North Carolina for alligator removal in residential areas, looks over some of his notable cases. (Port City Daily photo/ JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Jimmy English, the go-to man in North Carolina for alligator removal in residential areas, looks over some of his notable cases. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

WILMINGTON — They’ve been here longer than us — a lot longer. It’s only natural that the American alligator would roam about their land at their leisure. 

The continued infiltration of humans settling along the Cape Fear River has already, and will no doubt continue to change the landscape of River Road and the surrounding watershed communities. As the riverfront sees ongoing development, how will the natural wildlife respond?

Not in my swamp

“Every time they develop a piece of land, they are not losing habitat, they are gaining habitat,” said Jimmy English, owner of Wildlife Removal Service based in Wilmington.

“They’re getting in ponds and canals and retention ponds that didn’t exist before,” he said.

People may see ongoing development as a threat to wildlife habitats, but for alligators, English says the development has been a treat.

“It’s creating habitat for them,” he said. “They are pleased with it. Tickled with it.”

Home ranges of alligators in North Carolina have been recorded to range from seven acres to 3,555 acres. If their food source dissipates, alligators are known to locate to another.

“Alligators will leave the water and walk for miles sometimes on dry land,” English said.

After 46 years of gator wrangling, English says there’s “plenty of them then, plenty of them now.”

“So they’re creating habitat and you’ve got the protection of the law and now they’ve got just throngs and throngs and throngs of people all out in the swamps and the woods for the gators to get in their yard, that’s the problem,” English said.

As the lone private citizen with the authority to move a nuisance alligator in the state, English is a man homeowners in the Bernard Creek watershed may want on their team.

“I’m the only man in North Carolina that’s got a permit to move alligators,” he said.

River keeper

As groundskeeper for the Carolina Marine Terminal for over a decade, Tim Ward has seen his fair share of the living dinosaurs. 

“Anywhere off River Road you’re going to run into them,” Ward said.”I’ve seen as many as 14 in one day.”

A naturally shy creature, alligators won’t typically threaten human safety if left be.

“I guess you know if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone,” Ward said.

A resident of Echo Farms, Ward spends most of his time working and living in an alligator hotspot- the Bernard Creek watershed.

“I’ve seen a bunch of them up in Bernard Creek. Bernard Creek dumps into the river,” Ward said. “It’s just their natural habitat.”

Swamps, rivers, retention ponds and tidal creeks in southeastern, coastal areas of the state are the most likely abodes for gators.

“It’s creating habitat for them,” he said. “They are pleased with it. Tickled with it.”

With fresh to brackish waters being alligators’ preference, alligator sightings and interactions are common in the Bernard Creek watershed.

In October, the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission approved the Alligator Management Plan, a comprehensive document which proposes to legalize a limited alligator hunting season in areas where sightings and interactions are common.

For many residents of Echo Farms, a gator sighting is just part of the daily routine.

“Most people that live on the creek, they know they’re there,” Ward said.

Echo Farms

John Hirchak woke up to an alligator in his front yard in Echo Farms this year.

“The one I saw was nose to tail maybe 7 feet,” Hirchak said. His neighbors have a small dog, so he ran next door to alert them of the prehistoric visitor.

“The gator could care less what I’m telling my neighbor,” Hirchak said. “They walk across my yard onto the next one.”

As the vice chair of Save Echo Farms, Hirchak has worked with hundreds of residents in the community, which is comprised of 11 neighborhoods.

Matrix Development, a New Jersey-based company, owns and operates the Echo Farms Golf and Country Club, which will soon be developed to host upwards of 60 new homes on the greenway that is present now. Homeowners and developers have worked together this past year to find common ground.

“It’s been nice that we’ve been able to work with them and they’ve been able to work with us,” Hirchak said.

Increased and improved green space, as well as a reduction in impervious surfaces, are among changes proposed by Save Echo Farms that developers at Matrix have adopted so far.

Foxes, ospreys, rabbits, owls and, of course, gators, frequent Echo Farms’ 11 neighborhoods, which encompass Bernard Creek.

“Everything is connected,” Hirchak said. “It’s not just what’s out your backdoor that’s a concern for people out here.”

The group has kept the key drainage areas in the community on their radar since everything eventually flows through to Bernard Creek and the Cape Fear River.

“We cannot keep putting such a large strain on the watershed,” Hirchak said.

As human population increases and the alligator's natural habitat becomes increasingly more developed, human-alligator interactions are on the rise. (Port City Daily file photo)
As human population increases and the alligator’s natural habitat becomes increasingly more developed, human-alligator interactions are on the rise. (Port City Daily file photo)

He offered kudos to the city’s guidelines that monitor the impact of drainage, especially in light of incoming development. “We’re pretty confident the creek will receive quite a bit of protection.”

“I think if anything, if it’s done the way that it’s planned out now, the ponds are going to create drinking holes,” Hirchak said. “Wildlife will now be in those ponds.”

Hirchak is not concerned about the alligator, as he has noticed and heard tales of their resilience when people have attempted to move them in the past.

“Maybe in the short term (they) may be adversely affected, but in the long term there’s going to be more places for them to find food,” he said.

Gator interactions

In April, the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission released public documents, educating residents in alligator-prone areas on how to safely co-exist with the species.

An increase in requests for intervention in human-alligator interactions contributed to the adoption of the Alligator Management Plan.

“These requests have increased as the state’s human population has grown and rural areas have been developed,” the plan states.

Other than the occasional dog and damage incurred to vehicles by running one over, English says the greatest threat alligators pose to humans is “psychological unrest.”

“Some people, just the mere existence of the gator is enough,” English said. “Other people (say), ‘leave the gator alone, he’s alright, don’t bother him.’

“You get all kinds of reactions on these gator calls,” he said.

Jimmy English is the go-to man in North Carolina for alligator removal in residential areas. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Jimmy English is the go-to man in North Carolina for alligator removal in residential areas. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

Do you have any gator stories? Let us know in the comments below.


Johanna Ferebee can be reached at johanna@localvoicemedia.com or on Twitter @j__ferebee

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