Red wolf killed in Beaufort County

Published 10:05 pm Saturday, November 3, 2012

The red wolf — one of the world’s most endangered canids — exists in the wild in only five northeastern North Carolina counties: Washington, Tyrrell, Hyde, Dare and Beaufort. Somewhere between 100 and 120 animals live in the area, but those numbers are being cut down by the wolves’ natural predator: man. (Contributed photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A species was returned from the edge of extinction: Canis rufus, the red wolf. They once roamed the entire southeast United States, but now exist in the wild in one place, a territory marked by county lines in northeastern North Carolina —Washington, Tyrrell, Hyde, Dare and Beaufort. Though a captive breeding program saved the species, red wolves remain one of the world’s most endangered wild canids. The problem is, someone is killing them.
For the second time in two months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced a red wolf death, this one near Belhaven, this one killed by gunshot. When the entire population of wild red wolves number between 100 and 120, the death of two under suspicious circumstances is cause for concern, according to wildlife officials.
“These were considered unnatural deaths,” said David Rabon, Red Wolf Recovery Program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “There’s probably a number of things that are going on: number one, mistaken identity. It’s that time of year, fall hunting season. There are more people in the woods, they see an animal and they mistake it for a coyote.”
While the red wolf and coyote are of similar size and coloring, the way the animals are treated by both state and federal law is very different, according to Rabon.
“Coyotes are treated as a nuisance. There are no bag limits, no season. Basically, it’s an open season,” Rabon explained.
Red wolves, however, are protected by law and to kill one intentionally could mean a maximum one-year imprisonment and a $100,000 fine. But the state’s recent legalization of night hunting of coyotes, even within the five-county red wolf recovery area, may compound the problem: at night, there’s an even greater risk of mistaken identity between a “nuisance” species and an endangered one.
As a result of the recent red wolf death, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Welfare Institute, asked a state court last week to stop the spotlight hunting of coyotes and sent notice to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission that the commission is in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing spotlight hunting of coyotes, unless measures are taken to protect red wolves.
“We hope that the commission will take necessary measures to avoid the killing of red wolves,” said Derb Carter, a senior attorney at SELC, in a press release. “The killing of an endangered red wolf just over a month since the commission allowed spotlight hunting of coyotes at night is a clear signal that the rule is a danger to wild red wolves.”
Rabon pointed out, while night hunting of coyotes only went into effect Aug. 1, the problem of red wolves being gunned down is not new.
“We have seen an increase in, specifically, gunshot fatalities over the past five years or so,” Rabon said. “At this point, I don’t know if there’s enough information to determine whether the night-hunting rule has any bearing … but allowing the night hunting would only exacerbate the loss of the wolves through gunshot.”
Red wolves are distinguishable by the reddish color of their fur, most apparent behind the ears, around the neck and legs, though the majority of their fur is brown and buff colored, with some black along their backs. The average adult weighs between 45 and 80 pounds, stands about 26 inches tall at the shoulder and is approximately four-feet long from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. Of the current red wolf population, 70 of the animals wear tracking collars, but Rabon stressed that collars are not a way to distinguish between red wolves and coyotes — U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers track coyotes with collars too.
Both red wolves recently killed wore tracking collars and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a $2,500 reward for information directly leading to the arrest of the person(s) responsible for the death of the second collared red wolf found in Beaufort County.
There are cases of malicious intent, Rabon said — hunters who are going to kill any animal they want on their property or whomever’s property they are hunting — but he believes the vast majority of hunters are very ethical: “They think about conservation as a component of their hunting.”
When a species is at risk, conservation should be foremost, according to Rabon. His advice to hunters: “If you don’t know what it is, if you can’t get a positive identification, it’s best not to pull that trigger.”