Endangered red wolves on the line in lawsuit over night hunting

After four endangered red wolves were killed by hunters who possibly mistook them for coyotes while night hunting, a North Carolina judge has temporarily halted spotlight hunting of coyotes in five eastern counties where the world’s only wild population of red wolves is found.

The N.C. Wildlife Commission permitted this year nighttime spotlight hunting of coyotes, hoping to put a dent in the nuisance species. But coyotes look a lot like endangered red wolves, whose wild population numbers only about 100.

Red wolves had once been declared extinct in the wild until reintroduced through captive breeding programs.

Environmental groups vigorously protested nighttime spotlight hunting of coyotes, when the Wildlife Commission first proposed it earlier this year, for its potential harm to red wolves. Red wolves and coyotes are similar in size, fur, and coloring, so red wolves are frequently mistaken for coyotes, even in daylight.

But the state Wildlife Commission moved to allow the practice starting in August anyway.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has now filed a lawsuit to stop the spotlighting hunting on behalf of several conservation groups. It sought a temporary injunction against the rule while the full case is waiting to be heard.

A Wake County Superior Court judge granted the injunction, halting night hunting of coyotes in those five counties for now.

“The court acted to prevent the killing of more endangered red wolves,” said Derb Carter, a senior attorney at the law center.

But the injunction is only a small victory for environmental advocates who hope the spotlighting of coyotes will be prohibited permanently.

But Commission officials claim the spotlight hunting is an effective way of control coyotes, which are non-native to the state, destructive to the landscape and potential disease carriers.

“While we accept the judge’s decision, it is important to note that this is a decision on a preliminary injunction only. It is not a decision on the lawsuit,” said Wildlife Commission Executive Director Gordon Myers. “We remain confident of our position and its merits.”

Coyotes also kill pets and livestock, but the order does not prevent killing wildlife, including coyotes and red wolves, while in the act of depredation.

Once common throughout the Southeast, intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat eliminated wild red wolf populations. Red wolves bred in captivity were reintroduced on a North Carolina peninsula in the late 1980s.

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