BY JEANNA SMIALEK
RALEIGH — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering $2,500 for information about a red wolf found dead in Beaufort County on Oct. 12, apparently of a gunshot wound – the second rare wolf killed in North Carolina in two months.
Friday’s announcement came less than a week before Wake County Superior Court is scheduled to hear a complaint against a rule that allows hunters to shoot coyotes at night. North Carolina is home to the world’s only wild population of red wolves, with only about 100 living in an area that spans five northeastern counties, and red wolf activists worry hunters will mistake those wolves for coyotes.
“This is not just an endangered species,” said Derb Carter, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who is representing wildlife and environmental groups in the case. “It’s a critically endangered species, and this is the only wild population in the world.”
The groups specifically hope to block the night hunting rule, which was enacted in August, in the five counties where red wolves live, Carter said. The state legislature approved night hunting as a way to control coyotes, which are non-native predators that prey on poultry, small livestock and pet dogs and cats.
The Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute are plaintiffs in the case, which was announced Tuesday and is partly a response to a wolf found shot near Creswell in Tyrrell County in early September.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a reward for information related to that death as well. The maximum penalty for illegally shooting a red wolf is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The law center also has sent a letter to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission charging that the commission has violated the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing coyote hunting at night. The groups will file a federal action unless steps are taken to protect the wolves, the letter states.
The commission’s executive director, Gordon Myers, said the night hunts cannot violate the federal act because red wolves are treated as a non-essential experimental species, and don’t enjoy the same protection as an endangered species.
“We don’t believe this is in any way a violation of the Endangered Species Act,” Myers said.
He said while wolf deaths are a concern, the commission needed to give residents a way to handle livestock-killing coyotes and is working to educate hunters on how to distinguish between the two animals.
“It’s trying to strike a balance,” he said.
Officials don’t yet know what time of day the two wolves were killed, and the number of wolves killed since the injunction passed has been typical for this time of year, said David Rabon, Red Wolf Recovery Program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Still, the concern is that the coyote policy could cause an uptick in shootings, Carter said.
“Wolves are most active at night, so the chances of shooting one are greater,” he said. “The details aren’t available, but any wolf shooting is unlawful.”
Predator control programs and the loss of their natural habitat decimated the Southeast’s red wolf population in the 1960s, and they were declared extinct in the wild in the 1980s. In 1987, wolves born in captivity were reintroduced into the wild in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeast North Carolina, and the population area has since expanded to encompass 1.7 million acres.