Increase in human-alligator encounters spurs student research - WNCN: News, Weather

Increase in human-alligator encounters spurs student research

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

It's becoming more and more common these days to run into an alligator, whether near your home, in the park, or somewhere else. Now wildlife researchers in Raleigh are interested in finding out why.

North Carolina State University student Lindsey Garner spent this summer and last summer counting alligators in the swamps, rivers, and marshes of eastern North Carolina so researchers can estimate the state's current alligator population.

The Wildlife Resources Commission asked her to spearhead the project, in part, so they can better handle the increasing number of human-alligator encounters.

"There's a lot of people, a lot of pets, and a lot of alligators potentially in the same location," said Dr. David Cobb, wildlife management chief at the Wildlife Resources Commission.

No one can forget the day a 12-foot alligator snatched up an 80-pound dog in Jacksonville and ate it. These days, the Wildlife Resources Commission is getting a lot of phone calls about gators.

In 2010, biologists got 52 phone calls about gators. In 2011, they received 83 phone calls. In 2012, they received 94 phone calls. And they received 141 phone calls in 2013, according to Brad Howard, certified wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Commission.

"We've suspected that there's been an increase both in distribution and abundance of alligators, but we haven't actually tried to quantify it until now," said Cobb.

Garner and dozens of researchers spent this summer and last summer counting alligators from the Virginia border to South Carolina border.

They hit up the Trent River, White Oak River, lakes in the Croatan National Forest, and many other alligator habitats.

"In the 1970s, alligators were listed as endangered species. In more southern states, the population has rebounded, but in North Carolina, we don't know what the population looks like," said Garner.

Garner's team only counted alligators during the month of June to coincide with the height of the animals' breeding season.

"We usually started about 30 minutes after sunset, so we're out there on the water in the dark," said Garner.

Garner says her team counted 115 alligators each year, most of them near Wilmington. They'll estimate of the total number of gators using a mixture of landscape and weather factors.

"If we have found their population had decreased significantly, then obviously that's concerning and so we would need to figure out why and how we can protect them even further," said Garner.

But if their population has increased, Garner says the Wildlife Resources Commission may come up with a different management strategy, including alligator hunting.

"I think it's a possibility, but it's up to them to look at our research and make an informed decision," said Garner.

Garner's thesis adviser, Cobb, says as soon as her research is done, his agency can use it to figure out better places to relocate nuisance alligators.

"The more we can know about a species, the better we can respond to inquiries from the public," said Cobb.

He says they can also use the information to tell housing developers where alligators live, so they might not build so close.

He hopes Garner's research can help the state create stronger boundaries between man and animal, so alligator attacks like the one in Jacksonville don't happen again.

Garner is planning to finish her thesis by January or February. She hopes a peer review journal will publish her research.

The last alligator census took place in the early 1980s.

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