Protection of Red Wolves: Background

The red wolf (Canis rufus) once ranged throughout the eastern and southcentral United States. Intensive predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of the species' habitat had greatly reduced its numbers by the early 20th Century, however. Designated as an endangered species in 1967, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987, an experimental population of red wolves was reintroduced into eastern North Carolina.

Today, 90-110 wild red wolves exist in North Carolina—still the only place they exist in the wild. Among the various threats to the species, shooting by hunters is the leading cause of death, a fact attributed to the similarity in appearance between coyotes and red wolves. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, approximately 7 percent of the red wolf population is killed by hunters as a result of mistaken identity each year.

In February of 2012, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) proposed to allow—via a permanent rulemaking process—hunting of coyotes and feral pigs at night without bag limits, with the use of artificial lights, and without restriction on the use of electronic calls for coyotes. In addition to expanding hunting of coyotes and feral swine to night hours, the new rules would allow bow hunting of these animals on Sundays on private lands. Although the NCWRC adopted the permanent rules, citizens filed almost 40 objection letters to block implementation of the rules under state law. To get around this delay, The NCWRC approved these hunts on July 12 via a temporary rulemaking procedure without notifying the public—a maneuver that violates state administrative procedural laws.

The Animal Welfare Institute and its co-plaintiffs brought suit against the NCWRC and its director seeking a preliminary injunction against the adoption of this temporary rule to allow coyote hunting at night with artificial lights on public and private lands throughout the state, arguing that this rule was adopted in violation of the North Carolina Administrative Procedure Act and poses immediate harm to endangered red wolves in the state. The lawsuit alleged that the Commission violated the North Carolina Administrative Procedure Act when it adopted a temporary rule to allow coyote hunting at night with artificial lights on public and private lands throughout the state, placing an endangered species in harm’s way. Wake County Superior Court suspended this night hunting rule on November 21, 2012, and granted AWI et al. injunctive relief, enjoining the Commission from allowing night hunting of coyotes with artificial lights within the Red Wolf Recovery Area in Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington, and Beaufort counties under the temporary rule.

However, the 2012 victory applied only to the temporary rule. AWI and co-plaintiffs still had to address the Commission’s authorization of all coyote hunting in the five county Red Wolf Recovery Area. We brought suit on October 17, 2013, arguing that, by authorizing the shooting of coyotes within the Red Wolf Recovery Area, the commission is causing unlawful take (i.e. harass, harm, hunt, or kill) of the red wolf in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Since 2008, 20 red wolves have died from confirmed gunshot. Gunshot is the suspected cause of death for an additional 18 wolves. Five tracking collars cut from red wolves were also found during this period, indicating to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel that wolves may have been shot and disposed of unlawfully. Since 2012, five shooters who killed red wolves have reported to authorities that they mistook the wolves for coyotes.