BY LYNN BONNER
Hunters will be allowed to shoot coyotes after dark starting Aug. 1 under a new state rule opposed by conservationists who say it will imperil the endangered red wolf.
Red wolf conservationists not only oppose the night-hunting rule but question its speedy implementation.
The prospect of hunters bagging coyotes at night in North Carolina has drawn national attention because coyotes are easily mistaken for young red wolves, a federally listed endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked for 25 years to help red wolves gain a shaky foothold in the wild, and North Carolina is the only place where they roam free.
Somewhere between 90 and 110 wolves live in five northeastern counties.
Young red wolves are easily mistaken for coyotes even in the light of day. Fatal cases of mistaken identity are expected to rise when hunters go after coyotes in the dark.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service objected to night hunting for coyotes. More red wolves die from gunshots than from any other means, said David Rabon, recovery coordinator for the red wolf program. He called the red wolf “one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.”
A coyote problem
The national interest in protecting red wolves has collided with the state’s interest in killing coyotes. The issue even caught wind in the legislature a few years ago when the state House formed a Select Committee on Coyote Nuisance Removal. Getting rid of them is especially important to ranchers who are sick of raids on their herds and flocks.
“Often, they’ll take baby cows or lambs, eat the organs without killing the animals,” said Jonathan Cawley of the N.C. Predator Hunters Association. “It drives the ranchers crazy.”
The association formed about six years ago to hunt – at no cost to ranchers – the crafty coyotes they need help controlling, Cawley said. But he does not hunt where red wolves live, and said he doesn’t think any other association members would.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which proposed night hunting, crossed the state this year holding public hearings, gathering thousands of comments.
More than 2,610 people told the commission they wanted night hunting, while 1,251 were opposed.
A letter campaign
Opponents still had a chance to delay a permanent rule. If the Rules Review Commission receives at least 10 letters objecting to a rule, it puts the rule on hold until the next legislative session, giving lawmakers a chance to disapprove it.
The Red Wolf Coalition, a North Carolina advocacy group, helped organize more than enough formal opposition to at least delay a permanent night hunting rule. The Rules Review Commission received nearly 40 objection letters. But while the permanent rule was delayed, the Wildlife Resources Commission adopted an identical temporary rule on July 12. The Rules Review Commission approved it a week later.
“We were absolutely surprised,” said Cornelia Hutt, chairwoman of the Red Wolf Coalition’s board of directors. The group has always had a good relationship with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Hutt said. The state may have adopted the temporary rule improperly, without the proper notice and public hearing, she said.
Gordon Myers, Wildlife Resources Commission executive director, said the commission heard a lot about coyotes preying on livestock at its public hearings. Night hunting “is really to provide private landowners an important tool to manage coyotes,” he said.
The commission acted under the law, he said, because all the notices and public hearings they held for the permanent rule count for the temporary rule, too.
The red wolf’s protectors have doubts.
“This is distressing,” Hutt said. “We are exploring ways to challenge this.”