Once common in the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980 for reasons including hunting and lost habitat. In 1987, wildlife officials released captive-bred red wolves into the wilds of a federal tract in North Carolina. For years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that about 100 wolves roamed the land in coastal Dare, Hyde, Washington, Tyrrell and Beaufort counties and also drifted onto neighboring private property.
Now the federal agency has drastically cut its population estimate to between 50 and 75 wild red wolves. The revision was the result of fewer breeding adult wolves producing fewer babies to replace those animals that die, FWS supervisory wildlife biologist Rebecca Harrison said. "The decrease is a reflection of two years in a row of very low pup production in combination with the standing mortality," Harrison said.
While in the past wildlife officials have found 30 to 50 pups a year, last year 19 were found and this year only seven, Harrison said. The wolves breed a single litter of pups annually that are born in the spring.
An outside study last year of the red wolf recovery program by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute said it couldn't determine the specific reasons for the red wolf decline. Over the past decade, there was a tripling of wolf deaths from gunshots, the report said. Illegal killings of red wolves was the leading cause of deaths over the first 25 years of the program, the report said, with shootings and poisonings making up 30 percent of their deaths.
Most of the red wolf shooting deaths of breeding-aged red wolves happened during the last three months of the year just before the animals breed, the report said. Deer season also increases hunters in the forests in the fall.
The threats to red wolves from gunfire have increased as coyotes — which are often confused for their bigger, endangered cousins — multiplied across the state into the red wolf's range.
North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission in 2013 decided to allow coyote hunting at night on private land and under certain circumstances on public land. Conservationists said that resulted in the shooting deaths of red wolves since even experts often couldn't distinguish them from coyotes in a distant flashlight's glare.
Non-native coyotes threaten pets, livestock and native wildlife so in the rest of the state they can be hunted on private land at any time without any bag limit and on public land at night with a permit.
Concerns include a case earlier this month in which three coyotes stalked a man walking with his dog in a Raleigh forest. After police arrived to help, the coyotes stalked them too. There hasn't been an unprovoked attack on humans recorded in North Carolina, state wildlife officials said.
A federal judge meanwhile is monitoring events because of a lawsuit challenging nighttime coyote hunting. A settlement agreement led to new regulations this year again banning night hunting for coyote in the red wolf zone, but the General Assembly has about a year to decide whether to oppose it.
State Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, who represents a region that includes the red wolf zone, declined comment on whether lawmakers will object to the rules.
Last year, 15 red wolves died in the wild, including four from gunshots. In 2013, nine of 15 wild red wolf deaths were from shootings.
Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that "the fall of 2013 saw a large number of breeding females lost to gunshot, and we could be seeing a corresponding reduction in the number of pups."