RALEIGH — Wildlife and environmental groups are asking a Wake County court to block a new rule allowing coyotes to be hunted at night with spotlights after the shooting death of a similar-looking but endangered red wolf.
The groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and state attorneys for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission expect a hearing next week, when a judge could decide whether to freeze the statewide hunting rule that took effect in August.
About 100 red wolves live wild in a five-county region in northeast North Carolina, where scientists are trying to restore one of the two wolf breeds native to North America.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and red wolf groups are offering a reward of up to $8,000 for information that leads to the conviction of whoever killed a red wolf wearing a radio collar last month near Creswell in Tyrrell County, wildlife service red wolf recovery coordinator David Rabon said Wednesday.
Illegally killing a red wolf can be punished with up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
“The killing of an endangered red wolf just over a month since the (state) commission allowed spotlight hunting of coyotes at night is a clear signal that the rule is a danger to wild red wolves,” Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Derb Carter said
About six to eight wolves have been gunned down yearly since 2007, Rabon said. He declined to say how many have been shot this year because suspicious cases are under investigation. Red wolves are most active at night.
Wildlife Resources Commission officials explained their reasons for expanding coyote hunting to overnight hours by saying it would better control the predators — which prey on poultry, small livestock, and pet dogs and cats. State officials said about four out of five of the 3,500 comments received favored hunting coyotes with spotlights.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office said the office had no response to the conservationists’ filing other than to say state lawyers expected a hearing sometime next week.
The Red Wolf Coalition and other groups initially filed a lawsuit against night hunting of coyotes last month. They argued the expanded hunting could endanger red wolves, which resemble coyotes and are hard to tell apart even during the day.
The wolves are named for the reddish color of their fur most apparent behind the ears and along the neck and legs, but the animals are mostly brown and tan with some black along their backs. They are larger than coyotes but smaller than gray wolves, with the average adult weighing 45-80 pounds and about 4 feet long from nose to tail.
Red wolves were declared an endangered species 45 years ago. The Fish and Wildlife Service declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980. In 1987, 14 animals bred in captivity were introduced to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. The wolf area has expanded to 1.7 million acres including three national wildlife refuges, a Defense Department bombing range, state-owned lands, and private property.