As interactions with alligators increase along the NC coast, here's how to live with them (2024)

The large alligator tried not once, but twice to cross the ramp onto U.S. 17 near the Battleship North Carolina, eventually prompting the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office to intervene. A few days later, Carolina Beach police recently had to corral a small gator near a popular multi-use path back to a nearby pond.

And calls to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) about nuisance alligators and general sightings of the prehistoric reptiles are on the rise.

If you think there are more alligators than ever in coastal North Carolina, you might be right thanks to federal and state protections and a lack of a hunting season. If you think interactions between the animals and humans are increasing, you are certainly correct.

And it's probably our fault.

"One-hundred percent that's the reason we're seeing more human-alligator interactions," said John Harrelson, a WRC biologist whose district covers much of Southeastern N.C. "We're moving into the areas where they live, and we're building perfect alligator habitats for them."

More:13 things to know about alligators in North Carolina

Strong recovery

Alligators were once a rare sight in the American South, and particularly in North Carolina where they aren't all that common even today.

Once extensively hunted for their meat and skins and further degraded by the loss of habitat tied to America's post-World War II boom, alligator populations reached an all-time low in the 1950s. But thanks to increased federal and other protections, alligator populations have largely recovered and are even thriving in many areas.

That includes North Carolina, where the best guess is several thousand alligators live in the state's coastal plain.

Because the Tar Heel state represents the northern-most limit of the alligator's range, the animals aren't as common here as they are in warmer climates to the south like Florida and even South Carolina. Nor are the cold-blooded reptiles as big, since they aren't active year-round like they are in Louisiana, instead entering a near hibernation to weather North Carolina's chilly winters.

But development and rapid population growth along the coast, especially in Southeastern North Carolina, where Wilmington's tri-county region has grown from about 200,000 residents in 1990 to 436,000 in 2020 and is forecast to balloon to an estimated 615,000 in 2040, has increasingly brought alligators and people together − and sometimes into conflict.

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Perfect alligator habitat

The Waterford neighborhood in Leland represents the type of large-scale development that builders have used for decades to lure people south of the Mason-Dixon Line: affordable and big homes located in a low-tax environment; a walkable community with trails and plenty of amenities; and miles of manmade lakes to handle drainage and offer recreational opportunities.

But its ponds, flush with turtles and fish and relatively clean water, also have attracted other residents − these ones more local.

Harrelson said whether its Waterford, St. James, or Brunswick Forest in Brunswick County, River Landing in Duplin County, RiverLights in New Hanover County, or any of the numerous neighborhoods along Pender County's coastal plain, if you build a neighborhood tailor-made to suit alligators, they will come, and likely thrive.

“Presence alone is not enough to justify relocation," he said. "What justifies relocation is an alligator’s attitude.”

And an alligator turning into a problem animal is often due to human interference, especially feeding and harassing a gator because it is simply there.

But removing an alligator just because it makes people nervous isn't an answer.

“The No. 1 solution is education," Harrelson said. "We have to learn to coexist because even if we remove this alligator, another individual is likely to show up."

He said natural areas for relocation, like the Green Swamp in Brunswick County or Holly Shelter in Pender County, are already full of alligators, and dominant males don't appreciate interlopers in their territory. (Alligators are known cannibals.)

"And relocation generally doesn't work for another reason," Harrelson added. "Through some early GPS data we've collected, we know they'll try to come back, even if it's relatively far away.

"They're not going to stay where we put them."

Recent reports out of Florida showcased an American crocodile, a close relative of the alligator and the reason gators remain under federal protection due to the physical similarities to their highly endangered reptilian brethren, swimming 100 miles home back to Brevard County near Cape Canaveral after being relocated.

That leads back to education, but that also can be challenging in a growing region like Southeastern North Carolina. Harrelson remembers a recent alligator educational meeting held in St. James. Of the roughly 275 people who attended, only five were North Carolina natives.

"And even then, they're not always from the coast."

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Challenges of a changing climate

The Tar Heel state represents the very northern tip of the gator's range, and any climate fluctuations could add to the challenges facing an animal that's survived the mass extinction of its bigger reptile brethren. They include unregulated human hunting, massive habitat loss, and a less-than-cuddly public perception.

But a new challenge is now stalking North Carolina's alligators, although the impacts might not all be bad − at least for the alligator.

As a warm-weather loving animal, a hotter environment could allow North Carolina's alligators to expand their limited distribution to areas further inland and away from wet, boggy coastal areas.

While warmer weather could open new habitats up for the state's alligators, it also could impact their ability to successfully increase their population.

Like many reptiles, sexual maturity in alligators is directly related to body size. On the plus size, a warming climate could allow alligators to stay active longer, allowing them to grow faster. Research shows that both genders tend to be capable of reproduction at around six feet in length, with males in North Carolina believed to take 14-16 years to reach sexual maturity, while females require 18-19 years.

But warmer temperatures could also impact the sex of baby alligators. A hot and dry nest will produce mostly female babies, while nests that are cooler and wetter produce more males. Climate change is expected to lead to hotter and drier weather conditions in the Carolinas, and North Carolina's gator population is already believed to rely on a very small population of mature females.

A warming climate also is expected to fuel sea-level rise, which is already impacting coastal freshwater wetlands that are vital nesting and nursing areas for alligators.

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'Kind of cool'

Marie Franklin hasn't been in Wilmington very long, having moved from the Midwest in late 2023.

But she said she's still surprised to be sharing her new town with alligators.

"It might take some getting used to," Franklin said as she took a break from biking around Greenfield Lake, noting she'd seen a couple of her scaly neighbors near the lake's boathouse. "But they are kind of cool. I mean, they've been around for millions of years. They must be doing something right to last that long."

And that "cool" factor shouldn't be underestimated, Harrelson said, noting they've been perfectly evolved over the millennia to survive and thrive in our environment − with everything from a second eyelid to allow them to see underwater to a metabolism that allows them to go extended periods of time without eating.

“Alligators aren’t bad," he said. "We just need to learn to respect them.

“And that’s the only way we’re going to solve this issue. They’re going to be here, so we need to learn to live together.”

Rising interactions

Calls to the WRC related to alligators, including all nuisance, health, and observation reports.

  • 2023: 402
  • 2022: 274
  • 2021: 342
  • 2020: 336
  • 2019: 352

Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached at or @GarethMcGrathSN on X/Twitter. This story was produced with financial support from the Green South Foundation and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network maintains full editorial control of the work.

As interactions with alligators increase along the NC coast, here's how to live with them (2024)
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