In 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sought to bring the red wolf back from the edge of extinction by reintroducing about 100 of the animals into five rural counties on a peninsula in northeastern North Carolina.
Now, on the state level, North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission is trying to do the opposite by urging the world’s only wild population of endangered red wolves into oblivion. That is an odd objective for a commission charged with protecting “wildlife resources,” but in this case the state commission is more concerned with serving human convenience than the saving of a creature that was once abundant in the Southeastern United States.
The divergence between the federal and state agencies arises from a convergence between the red wolves and coyotes. The two animals are similar in appearance and sometimes interbreed, but while pure red wolves are exceedingly rare, coyotes have proliferated to the point of being a nuisance. Coyotes are found in all 100 North Carolina counties and sometimes attack pets and livestock and reduce the game animal population.
Coyote hunts help control their numbers, but in the counties where the red wolf is trying to come back – Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell and Washington – hunters have killed the red wolves by mistake, often at night. The red wolves’ gunshot death toll, 15 between 1987 and 2000, increased to 73 between 2000 and 2013. The red wolf population is now estimated at about 100, down from 130 in 2003, a decline caused mostly by hunting.
To stop the toll on red wolves, the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of conservation groups sued the Wildlife Resources Commission seeking a ban on coyote hunts in the recovery area. Last May, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ordered a stop to the hunts until the case could be heard. Meanwhile, the Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to work together to manage coyotes and protect the red wolves. The SELC later settled its lawsuit with an agreement that would ban night coyote hunting in the recovery area.
But rather than find a way to cull coyotes and save wolves, the Wildlife Resources Commission now wants to abandon the red wolf recovery effort. In January, the commission passed a resolution asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the red wolf extinct, end the reintroduction program and remove any red wolves living on private land in the recovery area. Commission members think the red wolf is too cross-bred with coyotes to be worth saving and that both animals are an irritation to private landowners and reduce deer and other game animals.
The commission’s proposal contradicts its mission and the settlement agreement. The Southern Environmental Law Center representing groups supporting the red wolf recovery – Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlifeand Animal Welfare Institute – has sent the commission a letter calling on the commission to rescind its resolutions and abide by its agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to promote the recovery of the red wolf.
Bringing back the red wolf is challenging, and coyotes complicate the mission. But the answer isn’t to give up and start shooting. The impatience of some annoyed landowners and hunters shouldn’t lead to an official position based on frustration. There’s more at issue here than someone’s passing inconvenience as the federal government tries to expand the red wolf population and limit the coyote population through sterilization. If we fail to preserve this last colony of red wolves, there may be no second chance.
The red wolf flourished before hunting and loss of habitat decimated its numbers. The Wildlife Resources Commission would betray its mission if it pushes for the red wolf’s extinction. If allowed to recover, the red wolf will itself control coyote populations and re-establish the natural order of wildlife in the recovery area.