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Red Wolf Deaths Prompt Investigation and State Court Case

We examine a controversial North Carolina rule that some believe has contributed to the deaths of the rare and endangered Red Wolf.

"Coyote" Jerry Murray - photographer/USFWS
"Red Wolf" Ryan Nordsven - photographer/USFWS.

After being declared extinct in 1987, red wolves have made a comeback thanks to the North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program. But some believe their populations are being threatened yet again. Since a nighttime hunting rule that allows spotlight hunting of coyotes went into effect August 1st, three red wolves have been shot and killed. Concerned groups are asking a state court to stop the spotlight hunting- in an effort to save the endangered red wolf.

"Gunshot mortality is already the leading cause of death in Red Wolves in eastern North Carolina. Allowing this hunting will increase the deaths of red wolves from gunshots."

Senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center Derb Carter says hunters could easily mistake a red wolf for a coyote because they look almost identical.

"It's difficult to distinguish during the day, much less at night when often all you're seeing is a shadow and some eye shine. A small red wolf resembles closely a large coyote and at night, it would be almost impossible to tell them apart."

This week, we sought comment from the Wildlife Resources Commission but was referred instead to the State Attorney General's office representing the commission. They put us in contact with Attorney Norman Young. But he too, turned us down, saying

"My general practice is not to comment on any kind of pending litigation."

Southern Environmental Law Center Attorney Derb Carter did agree to speak with us. He is representing Defenders of Wildlife, the Red Wolf Coalition, and Animal Welfare Institute. Those three organizations have challenged the spotlight hunting regulation issued by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Carter argues the WRC did not follow the proper procedures in adopting the rule.

"We've also informed the state wildlife commission that they are in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act because it's specifically authorizing activities that would result in the taking of an endangered species which of course is the red wolf."

Red wolves can be heard and in some rare instances seen in southeastern North Carolina. Red wolves were put on the endangered species list in 1973. That's when biologist sought to capture as many as possible to put into a captive breeding program.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service essentially to save the animal make the animal extinct in the wild."

Coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program David Rabon says they carefully considered which natural habitat would be the new home for the wild red wolf population.

"At the time, we were looking around the southeast, which would have been around the species historic range. We settled on North Carolina because eastern North Carolina provided good habitat, a good prey base for the animals, it had a low human population density, and it also had at the time.. no coyotes."

Coyote populations in North Carolina have steadily risen over the past decade. The non-native species started moving into our area as a result of territory expansion and being brought in illegally from other states. Rabon says there are several complications with coyotes and red wolves coexisting, such as hybridization and genetic swamping.

"They have basically moved out of the west and along the way bred with wolves bred with dogs so the coyote that we have here in the east is actually a hybrid its an animal that still retains a lot of the coyote characteristics, we still call it a coyote but its also taken on some of these other characteristics of dogs and wolves. Often cases they may have gotten a little bigger, they may take on a pack characteristics, or hunting in packs, they can take on wolf characteristics, wolf like behaviors."

While North Carolina is seeing an uptick in coyote populations, Rabon says the number of red wolves is dwindling. Current numbers estimate between 100 and 120 exist in the wild.

Last month, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked the North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Service to confirm any red wolf deaths that have occurred since the nighttime hunting rule took effect. So far, three red wolves have been killed, all from gunshot wounds.

"Being an ongoing investigation, I can't speak to much about them. All of those deaths have occurred within the five county area of eastern North Carolina which is considered the Red Wolf Recovery Area."

According to the Associated Press, the most recent red wolf was found last week near Creswell, on the Washington and Tyrrell county line. The second red wolf death occurred in Beaufort County, and the first in Tyrrell County. All three were wearing radio tracking collars. Rabon believes the new night hunting regulation is only partially to blame. He says in the past several years, the State Fish and Wildlife Service have noted an increase in the number of red wolf deaths, whether by illegal take which includes gunshot mortality, trapping or poisoning - or legal take - like an accidental strike from a vehicle.

"Our concerns with the night hunting rule - and we shared them with the state- were that it would likely exacerbate an existing problem. And the existing problem is that we are already experiencing increasing levels of, high levels of unnatural mortality, especially the suspected illegal take kind."

For more information on the North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program and to see pictures of the red wolf, visit publicradioeast.org. I'm Jared Brumbaugh.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.