RALEIGH — A federal judge signed off Thursday on an agreement meant to protect the world’s only wild population of red wolves by banning nighttime hunting of similar-looking coyotes in Eastern North Carolina and increasing permitting requirements.
The settlement agreement between state wildlife officials and several conservation groups covers five counties and was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle. The wildlife groups say the restrictions are needed because hunters frequently mistake the red wolves for coyotes.
The order signed by Boyle bans coyote hunting on public lands in the area except for very limited circumstances by people authorized to participate in special hunts. To kill coyotes on private land, hunters must obtain a permit in addition to a hunting license. The hunting must take place during the day, and kills must be reported.
The agreement covers Dare, Hyde, Washington, Tyrrell and Beaufort counties, where about 100 red wolves currently roam the wild.
“This settlement will advance the long-term protection of red wolves by reducing the likelihood that they will be killed by hunters who mistake them for coyotes,” said D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute, which was one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Once common in the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980 due to factors including hunting and loss of habitat. In 1987, wildlife officials released red wolves bred in captivity back into the wild in North Carolina.
Wildlife officials are currently considering whether to continue the 27-year experiment to restore the endangered species, which it tracks with radio collars. Nearly 48,000 comments were submitted during a period for the public to weigh in. About 200 red wolves are also in captive breeding programs.
Conservationists say gunshots are a leading cause of death for red wolves. The plaintiffs, which also include the Red Wolf Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife, sued North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission after it voted in 2013 to allow coyote hunting at night on private land and under certain circumstances on public land. Coyote hunting had previously been limited to daylight hours.
In May, Boyle had issued a preliminary injunction blocking all coyote hunting in the five counties pending further review.
So far this year, 12 red wolves have died in the wild, including three from gunshots. In 2013, nine of 15 wild red wolf deaths were from shootings.
It’s a crime to kill a red wolf except in certain circumstances, such as a farmer protecting livestock.