Steadily rising coyote populations have been causing enough trouble in North Carolina as it is, but now even management efforts are having unintended consequences.
A North Carolina court granted several conservation groups' requests in late November 2012 and stopped a new rule that many said was putting red wolves in danger. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission had adopted the temporary rule on Aug. 1, allowing night hunting of coyotes with a light. There is still the possibility that they will try to put a similar permanent rule in place, however.
According to official reports, four red wolves have been killed since the rule was adopted in August 2012. At least one more was also killed after the rule was suspended.
"They look very close [similar] to coyotes," said Tara Zuardo, legal associate for the Animal Welfare Institute, one of several organizations that jointly filed a lawsuit in September against the commission, as well as a request to end the night hunting.
Eastern North Carolina has the only established wild population of red wolves left in the world, and there's only about 90 to 110 of them, Zuardo said in an interview. She said that there are already about seven red wolves mistakenly killed every year.
"Out of the total population, that's 7 to 9 percent annually," Zuardo said. "That's before the night hunting."
"If we have those issues in the daytime, we're definitely going to have them in the nighttime," said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, another organization involved in the case. Many hunters don't even know that North Carolina has wolves, so they just assume they're coyotes, Wheeler said in an interview.
Red wolves were officially declared extinct in the wild in 1980, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tried to reintroduce them to several areas in the late 1980s. "This is really the only reintroduction program that worked," Zuardo said. "It's a pretty sensitive population."
Wheeler said that shooting even a few wolves can be disastrous. "We have less than a dozen [mated] pairs of animals," she said. Not only that, but shooting coyotes can also hurt the wolves, she said.
Because of interbreeding concerns, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service already sterilized coyotes within red wolf territories.
A press release issued by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Chapel Hill organization that officially filed the initial complaint against the commission, said that shooting these coyotes "will undo effective coyote population control efforts and further jeopardize the native red wolf population."
Forrest Orr, enforcement officer for the commission, said that hunting is necessary for dealing with rising populations of coyotes.
"Coyotes have no natural predators; they're pretty much the top of the food chain," said Orr in an interview. "Hunting and trapping are really the only management tools that we have."
Mallory Martin, chief deputy director of the commission, said in an email interview that coyotes prey on livestock on farms and domestic pets in urban areas, and they've been reported to damage crops like watermelons as well.
"These are environmental and economic realities for landowners, farmers, ranchers and others who are directly affected by expanding coyote populations," Martin said.
Martin said that night hunting is an important tool for landowners to have for managing coyotes and their effects on their private land. "Adoption of this rule recognizes the importance of providing private landowners a reasonable and full range of options to respond to the expansion of a non-native predatory species on the landscape," he said.
Orr said that as the coyote population explodes, "they move into the more urban areas, and that's where you start getting more of the problems," as coyotes lose their fear of people when you can't hunt them.
The Southern Environmental Law Center's press release said the commission also violated state laws when they adopted the night hunting rule.
"Temporary rules are supposed to be more like emergency rules," Zuardo said. "They can be passed when there's a serious or unforeseen threat to public health or safety or welfare.
"But in terms of night hunting, that's not really covered under a temporary rule," Zuardo said. "It just doesn't qualify."
Zuardo said the legal problem is not the most important issue. "It's not just that they went ahead with these rules, it's that they didn't take into account the danger to such a sensitive and endangered species," she said. "You could wipe out the population in a night basically."
The conservation groups involved told the commission it has violated the federal Endangered Species Act, and they will request federal action if the commission does not take steps to ensure no more red wolves are put in harm's way. The daytime hunting alone continues to pose a substantial threat to their survival.