Groups Seek to Protect Endangered Red Wolves in Recovery Area from Deadly Mistaken Identity

Chapel Hill, NC—Conservation organizations today challenged North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission’s authorization of coyote hunting—including by spotlight at night—in the five county area of eastern North Carolina inhabited by the world’s only wild population of about 100 red wolves. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the complaint in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute, Red Wolf Coalition, and Defenders of Wildlife.

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 July, the law center notified the commission that it was in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing hunting of coyotes within the Red Wolf Recovery Area, and that the groups would file a federal enforcement action unless the commission took steps to protect the wolves.

“Following the mandate of the Endangered Species Act, the federal government has gone to great lengths to reintroduce the red wolf into the wild and provide for its recovery,” said Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute. “For a state agency to encourage hunting—in the middle of the recovery area—of an animal that cannot readily be distinguished from the red wolf, and to further sanction such hunting at night, defies logic and certainly sabotages red wolf recovery.”

Red wolves and coyotes are similar in appearance so red wolves are frequently mistaken for coyotes, even in daylight. 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 US 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.

“Mistaken identity is a lethal, but preventable, threat to the world’s only wild population of endangered red wolves,” said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the groups. “Gunshot is the leading cause of death for these rare animals, and allowing the hunting of coyotes in core red wolf habitat substantially increases the risk to red wolves.”

As of July 26, 2013, the commission authorizes coyote hunting both during the day and at night 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 the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute, Red Wolf Coalition, and Defenders of Wildlife.

“Coyote hunting has a catastrophic effect on the red wolf population,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition. “Continuing this practice will threaten the survival of red wolves on the landscape.”

To prevent wolves interbreeding with coyotes—another threat to the wolf population—the US Fish and Wildlife Service sterilizes coyotes that have territories within red wolf habitat. Shooting sterilized coyotes also harms the native red wolf population by undermining effective coyote population control efforts.

“There are many good reasons to prohibit coyote hunting in red wolf habitat, and not a single one to allow it that stands up to scrutiny,” said Jason Rylander, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Killing coyotes should never take precedence over protecting red wolves.”

North Carolina is home to the world’s only wild population of red wolves. Red wolves bred in captivity were reintroduced on a North Carolina peninsula within their native range in the late 1980’s 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.