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NC: Re-endangering the red wolf?

Proposal to allow after-dark shooting of coyotes makes some wolf advocates howl

By T. DeLene Beeland

Since 1993, it’s been legal to shoot coyotes during daylight hours throughout North Carolina, but a new rule proposed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission would expand statewide coyote hunting opportunities to include nighttime. The new rule would allow the use of artificial lights to blind coyotes after dark where hunting is legal. There would be no season, no bag limit and no permit required.

Opponents to the rule say it unnecessarily places federally-listed red wolves at risk of being shot by mistake because they appear physically similar to coyotes. Red wolves range in weight from 55 to 75 pounds, while coyotes are usually 35 to 40 pounds, according to Red Wolf Recovery Program coordinator David Rabon.

“We have suffered a number of problems during daylight hours with mistaken identity, and hunting at night is only going to add to that,” Rabon said. On average, six to eight red wolves are killed each year in cases where the shooter believed he was taking a coyote but instead shot a red wolf. Red wolves are most active at night.

Because coyotes and red wolves crossbreed under certain conditions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sterilized coyotes in the five-county red wolf recovery area since about 2000 to prevent interspecies breeding. Rabon said the program is monitoring about 40 sterilized coyotes in Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties. These coyotes and all known red wolves wear radio collars, which might add to the identity confusion. Rabon fears the rule change would harm his program if sterilized coyotes are shot, and he questions what WRC is trying to achieve in terms of wildlife management.

Goals behind the rule

Different WRC biologists have offered different interpretations for the management goals behind the proposed rule. Perry Sumner, a biologist in the division of wildlife management, said the primary goal is to allow hunters more opportunities, citing input his agency has had from the N.C. Predator Hunters Association over the past several years. Also it is “one more tool” for people to manage coyote “problems” in their area.

There are some coyote issues in rural areas with livestock, he said, but the WRC hears more complaints from urbanites who have lost pets. He conceded the night-hunting rule would do nothing to help urban complaints because firearms cannot be discharged in most municipalities.

Sumner confirmed that the state has not conducted surveys to determine how many coyotes are present or how they are distributed. He also said the burden of scientific evidence shows hunting fails to manage coyote populations: “Historically, that has not worked. That is why we did not include the word ‘population’ in our rule justification.”

But at a public hearing in Asheville last month, WRC division of wildlife management chief, David Cobb, contradicted this statement at a public hearing in Asheville on March 21. Cobb stated that a third goal was to “control coyote populations.”

“By not giving a firm reason for the change, it allows their arguments to be flexible,” Rabon said. “Our concern at this point is what effect it could have on red wolves as well as other wildlife and public safety.”

Effect on red wolves

Last year, the first scientific paper to examine the effects of human-caused killings of red wolves – including being shot in cases of mistaken identity, hit by vehicles, and poached – was published in the science journal PLoS One. The study tested two ecological theories and was led by Dennis Murray of Trent University in Peterborough, Canada.

The researchers divided the red wolf population growth into two major time periods, 1990-1998 and 1999-2006, and classified the first time frame as having a low population density (the reintroduced population was still growing) and the second as having a high population density (the recovery area began to approach being full).

They found that at low population densities, human-caused killings had a stronger negative effect on red wolf population. But at higher densities, they found mixed results. They hypothesized that as stable red wolf packs dissolved due to human-caused killings, it freed the surplus breeding-age red wolves to either begin breeding with the surviving mate, or to take over the territory of a dissolved pack and form an entirely new breeding pair.

“What they reported is that it’s not a good thing to have people shooting wolves,” said N.C. State veterinary medicine professor Michael Stoskopf. “But it’s also not going to be the thing that takes the population down at its current level of impact.”

Stoskopf said the study findings describe past scenarios, and should not drive future management decisions.

“Once you change one of the (management) rules, everything is out the window on the math,” Stoskopf said.

A second study took the form of a dissertation directed by Lisette Waits, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Idaho. Waits and her then-student, Justin Bohling, examined factors that were correlated with red wolves hybridizing. “A high proportion of these hybridization events were occurring after the disruption of a pack,” Waits said. “Particularly, it’s been a problem associated with gunshot mortality during the hunting season, and the hunting season precedes the breeding season.”

More than half of the pack disruptions they studied were caused by human actions, with gunshot mortality topping the list.

Effect on coyotes

A study underway at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center may provide needed insight into how coyotes respond biologically to hunting pressure, an issue that is surprisingly under-studied.

Postdoctoral researcher Jonathan Way is working with center director Robert Crabtree to learn how coyotes over very large areas respond to persecution. Way said their preliminary data show that coyotes in areas of persecution have higher rates of pup survival, possibly due to a greater availability of resources compared with other areas, although their litters tend to be the same size.

This alters the normal distribution of individuals across age classes, potentially creating a breeding groundswell. “Lots of indiscriminate killing fragments their family units and can reduce the size of established territories,” Way said. “You essentially wind up with a population composed mostly of younger animals where there is more breeding going on.”


Way did not mince words about the proposal. “To allow hunting of one species that is so similar looking to a second species that is fully endangered is just bizarre,” he said.

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the not-for-profit Red Wolf Coalition, said coyotes fill an ecological niche here that would likely not be open had the red wolf not been previously exterminated. Coyotes eat rabbits, rodents, nutria, beaver, groundhogs and other small mammals, some of which many people consider pests. Wheeler advocates teaching coexistence instead of trying to “shoot them away.”

“It’s so cool that this is the only place in the world that we have this animal, the red wolf,” Wheeler said. “But they’re (the WRC) putting people in a position to shoot an endangered species, and that’s against the law.”