BY ANNE BLYTHE
RALEIGH — Wily coyotes in five northeastern counties might have just wriggled out from harm’s way at night, in part because of their wolverine looks and the pack they sometimes run with.
A Wake County judge on Tuesday said he planned to put a temporary halt to the spotlight hunting of coyotes in Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington and Beaufort counties. The measure is designed to protect a different animal, though – the endangered red wolf.
Paul Ridgeway, a Wake County Superior Court judge, announced his plans after hearing arguments from lawyers representing a coalition of environmental groups and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the state agency that issues licenses for hunting, trapping and fishing.
The red wolf, a critically endangered species once populous throughout the Southeast, was reintroduced into the wilds of North Carolina in 1987.
The species, once a bushy-tailed predator in forests, swamps and coastal prairies, was thought to be extinct in the wild by 1980.
But before the population was totally eliminated, biologists and others located and captured as many as possible and began a breeding program in captivity that would eventually lead to the reintroduction of the long-legged, tawny-coated pups into their once native habitats.
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, 28 miles of wetlands in Dare and Hyde counties, was one such place.
Coyotes, a shorter-legged wild dog also known as the brush wolf or prairie wolf, have migrated from the western half of the country and proliferated across the state.
Despite being extensively hunted, the wild dogs with the gray-brown and yellowish-gray pelts, have adapted to suburban and urban encroachment.
In North Carolina, where hunting of most animals is restricted by seasons, methods and bag limits, there has been a call for rule changes that would allow coyote night hunting with spotlights.
The Wildlife Commission put forth such a proposal at the urging of the General Assembly earlier this year. The new rule would have become effective Aug. 1, but the North Carolina Rules Review Commission, which looks at all such proposals, received more than 30 written objections.
Those objections delayed implementation of the permanent rule until early next year, after the General Assembly reconvenes and has a chance to take another look at the proposal.
Though a hue and cry erupted to protect the red wolf, there were landowners complaining about the coyote menace. The animals attack livestock and pets.
The Wildlife Commission imposed a temporary rule that allowed for the spotlight hunting. But at least one of the 100 red wolves within the Red Wolf Recovery Area was killed by a hunter mistaking it for a coyote after the temporary rule went into effect, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Environmentalists raised concerns.
Four other red wolves have turned up dead, too.
Red wolf recovery threat
Gunshot deaths, according to federal wildlife officials, are a significant threat to red wolf recovery.
On behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, Animal Welfare Institute and others, the Southern Environmental Law Center, represented by Derb S. Carter Jr., a lawyer from Chapel Hill who specializes in environmental litigation, filed a complaint in Wake County Superior Court seeking an injunction to immediately halt spotlight hunting of coyotes across the state.
Ridgeway told Carter and Norman Young, the lawyer and rule-making coordinator for the Wildlife Commission, that he planned to halt the hunting in the five counties within the Red Wolf Recovery Area.
Carter was to write an order for Ridgeway to sign, an action that could take place this week.
The injunction would stay in place until the permanent rule is revisited by state legislators and either upheld or struck down.