Riverkeeper Report: Are alligators coming to Virginia?

Published 6:32 am Saturday, October 1, 2011

An alligator suns himself at Merchants Millpond State Park in Gatesville, N.C. -- SUBMITTED

Are alligators coming to Virginia? That’s the question I started asking after the Wednesday story in The Tidewater News about the illegal possession of alligators and why it is illegal in Virginia to own them.

It was only a couple of years ago that a friend of mine visited Merchants Millpond in North Carolina and took pictures of several large gators lounging around. The significance of that is the fact that this state park is less than 30 miles from the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers.

So I was wondering if gators could or would migrate to our fair rivers.

According to Jay Greenwood, park superintendent at Merchants Millpond, there are five gators living there.

“We have not seen any proof of them reproducing yet, but they may soon,” Greenwood said. “To reach reproductive age, they are usually about 8 feet long, so most of the ones seen in this area are just shy of that. In cooler climates they are unable to reproduce as quickly because they don’t grow as fast as they do in the far South.”

All the waterways in northeast North Carolina are connected to the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge, which has always had a good population. Like most wildlife, young typically move to create their new range for plentiful food supplies.

So they will move up and down waterways in search of new home ranges.

Research now shows alligators can survive our winters. They can actually freeze in the ice as long as they can get air, and most of their body is below the freeze line.

So to this Riverkeeper that sounds like the possibility of us one day seeing a gator in Virginia waters is not unthinkable. Personally I would not like alligators in the Blackwater or Nottoway.

However, Greenwood went on to tell me that in North Carolina, “it is our belief that this is a positive issue. If we manage it properly and educate the public, we will be better off.  They are a large predator that helps us control species that are not native or invasive, such as nutria and resident Canada geese. We don’t know for sure to what extent they would have gone north in our history.  They may have been up to the Chesapeake before their extirpation in most of its range.”

“These animals have really helped our water quality in controlling the resident geese as well as reducing the nutria populations. They have also become a big tourist attraction; we have a lot of visitors that travel here to see them. We provide signage and a lot of education to protect the visitors as well as the alligators.”

Hey, I’m all for a reduction in the Canada goose population and maybe that would take care of the “cows in the river” issue, but I see a huge reduction in boating, water skiing and swimming activities in the Blackwater and Nottoway if gators are basking along our shorelines.

I asked John Kleopfer, a wildlife biologist and herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, what he thought about the prospect of Virginia gators and he stated, “Fortunately, I don’t believe there is any direct connectivity between Merchants Mill Pond and Virginia. The Albemarle Sound waterway up the Pasquotank River is a more viable route for natural range expansion.”

So there you have it. Are alligators coming here? I reckon they will eventually if climate change continues heating things up.

I guess the right answer is they will if they want to and neither Moonpie nor I will be able to stop that on either of the two rivers we call the Blackwater and Nottoway.