(published May 14, 2009)
LAKE WYLIE — Experts estimate South Carolina has 100,000 alligators in its waters, but three of the smallest are the ones causing a stir in Lake Wylie.
“The first sighting was Friday night, and they’ve been coming in regularly since then,” said Dickie Freeman, park manager at Elks Park Campground in Rock Hill.
Elks Park, which includes 43 permanent camp sites that are “pretty much full” from this time of year through October, sits within eyesight of Lake Wylie Dam on the southern shore of Lake Wylie. Pictures of the three gators — estimated by Freeman to be three or four feet long each — have been circulating the grounds since the first sighting.
“I think it’s just a curiosity thing at this time,” Freeman said. “People are keeping an eye on it, with children swimming in the area. It’s not something you see every day out here.”
Mike Willis, spokesman for South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said alligators generally are found east of the state fall line running roughly from Aiken to Columbia to Bennetsville. Alligators are not common at Lake Wylie, he said.
“We have a lot of times where people just dump them because they become too big,” Willis said. “In a reservoir as far north as Lake Wylie, that’s probably what happened. They probably are not a naturally occurring population.”
Willis stresses possessing or dumping an alligator, along with disturbing it without a special hunting or removal permit, is “highly illegal” in South Carolina. Most importantly, he said, witnesses to alligator sightings should never feed the animals.
“That leads to a lot of problems,” Willis said.
Though seldom seen and less often photographed, alligators are not completely foreign to Lake Wylie. Charles Wood, an avid sailor, kayaker and president of the River Hills Marina board, remembers a half dozen years ago when a much larger alligator was removed from Crowders Creek. Since then most of the discussion about alligators has been rumor, he said.
“I have not seen or talked to any alligators in that time,” Wood said.
Though Wood has not seen any himself, pictures of the most recent alligator sightings separate them from rumors.
“A picture would be worth a thousand words,” Wood said. “I think that’s when a lot of people would be a lot more concerned about it.”
According to the state, the size of the Elks Park gators border on concern. Willis said alligators are considered dangerous when they are “at least four feet” in length. However, wildlife officials say an alligator sighting is not necessarily a reason to call.
“Just an alligator sighting is not a reason to call us,” Willis said. “We get those all the time. Now, if it’s presenting a threat to humans, they need to call us.”
So far at Elks Park, there are no plans to remove the animals.
“No one’s in any danger whatsoever," Freeman said. "We’re not doing anything at all. We’re just watching.”
Despite a mostly rumored status, alligators often create a buzz in local waterways with or without photo identification. Reported sightings, as recently as February 2006 by lake resident Emily Sutton, occasionally come in to the Lake Wylie Pilot and a new restaurant and bar set to open soon on S.C. 49 will be called Wylie Gators. On nearby Lake Norman, the community Web site lakenormanmonster.com even links to a “self-appointed Lake Norman Alligator Control Officer,” who states a lack of support from municipalities of any kind.
Yet, there are confirmed sightings, too. According to Herald and Lake Wylie Pilot archives, DNR officers nabbed an 8-foot alligator in August 2002 on Lake Wylie. DNR officials searched for the animal after residents reported multiple sightings.
In 2000, officers found a gator in the Crowders Creek area of Wylie and in 1999, Catawba Nuclear Station employees spotted a 5- to 7-foot long alligator lurking in a nearby lagoon.
While experts agree the likeliest cause of alligators in Lake Wylie is illegal dumping, there is some debate on whether they could breed here.
“It’s just not possible for them to breed in our area,” said Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman, citing a lack of wetlands and warm temperatures.
Yet Willis, while guessing the latest round of gators were dumped, is concerned there are three.
"It kind of leads me to believe they could be reproducing," he said. "It’s not impossible. It’s not out of the question.”
Whether or not an alligator shows signs of aggression, onlookers should leave the creatures alone. Especially in the wake of recent problems with hydrilla and northern snakehead, Merryman hopes the alligator sightings will remind people to be careful what they put in the water.
“Every year it seems like there is some report of an alligator somewhere in one of the lakes," he said. " This is just another reminder that we need to stop bringing non-native species to our area. They don’t intend to live here. They don’t need to be here. They’re just out of place.”
DNR listings for alligator reporting have no number for York County, however, a 24-hour dispatch line can be used at 800-922-5431.