Chapel Hill, NC—A federal court issued a preliminary injunction blocking the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s authorization of coyote hunting—including at night—in the five-county area of eastern North Carolina inhabited by the world’s only wild population of about 100 endangered red wolves. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sought the injunction in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Red Wolf Coalition.
"This is great news for the red wolf," said Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute. "Now we need to ensure that red wolves have a future in North Carolina, where they won't be indiscriminately killed, and will be given a chance to recover."
Red wolves and coyotes are similar in appearance so red wolves are frequently mistaken for coyotes, even in daylight. Gunshot mortality is the leading cause of death of red wolves. At least 50 red wolves have died from confirmed or suspected gunshot since January 2008. Since 2012, five shooters who killed red wolves and reported the kills to authorities said that they had mistaken the wolves for coyotes.
Judge Terrence W. Boyle stated in his ruling that “By authorizing coyote hunting in the five-county red wolf recovery area, and in particular by authorizing coyote hunting during all seasons and at any time day or night, the Commission has increased the likelihood that a red wolf will be shot, or that a breeding pair will be dismantled or a placeholder coyote killed.” He reasoned further that “By designating the red wolf as protected and dedicating funding and efforts for more than twenty-five years in a program to rehabilitate the once-nearly extinct species, Congress has repeatedly demonstrated that it has chosen to preserve the red wolf—not simply to let inaction determine its fate—and it is not for this Court to permit activities that would have an effect counter to this goal.”
“Today’s decision provides the thoughtful, balanced approach to red wolf conservation that we hoped for,” said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney at SELC who represents the groups. “As the court found today, coyote hunting is causing more harm than good to both red wolf conservation and coyote control efforts. Today’s ruling is good for red wolves, and good for landowners.”
As of July 26, 2013, the Commission authorized coyote hunting with artificial spotlights within the red wolf recovery area. Prior to this permanent regulation going into effect in July, a temporary rule that legalized spotlight hunting of coyotes at night in North Carolina was in effect from August 2012 until November 2012, when it was suspended by Wake County Superior Court in a lawsuit brought by SELC on behalf of the same organizations. SELC notified the Commission in July 2013 that it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act by allowing the hunting of coyotes in the recovery area—during the day and night—and warned of an impending lawsuit unless the actions were taken to protect the wolves.
To prevent coyotes interbreeding with wolves—another threat to the wolf population—the US Fish and Wildlife Service sterilizes coyotes who have territories within red wolf habitat. The court held that shooting sterilized coyotes also harms the native red wolf population by undermining effective coyote population control efforts.
“It's a great day for red wolf conservation in the Southeast. Coyote hunting in the red wolf recovery area posed a serious threat to these extremely rare animals,” said Jason Rylander, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Today's ruling adds an important layer of protection that will greatly help their continued recovery.”
Red wolves bred in captivity were reintroduced on a North Carolina peninsula within their native range in the late 1980s after red wolves were declared extinct in the wild. Once common throughout the Southeast, intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat eliminated wild red wolf populations.
“The Red Wolf Coalition is hopeful that the court’s decision will be a roadmap for stakeholders to work together for red wolf conservation,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition.