RALEIGH — Conservationists hoping to help the endangered red wolf make a comeback in northeastern North Carolina are feeling a bit under the gun these days.
A hunting rule adopted by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission went into effect this summer, and though the regulation is focused on coyotes, conservationists fear that it puts the similar-looking red wolves in the crosshairs, too.
On Thursday, a coalition of conservationists and environmental organizations filed a complaint in federal court accusing the Wildlife Resources Commission and the executive director of violating the federal Endangered Species Act.
The red wolf, a critically endangered species once populous throughout the Southeast, was reintroduced into the wilds of North Carolina in 1987.
The bushy-tailed predator that roamed forests, swamps and coastal prairies was thought to be extinct in the wild by 1980.
But before the population was totally eliminated, biologists and others located and captured as many as possible and began a breeding program in captivity that would eventually lead to the reintroduction of the long-legged, tawny-coated pups into their once native habitats.
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, 28 miles of wetlands in Dare and Hyde counties, was one such place.
Coyotes, a shorter-legged wild dog, have migrated from the western half of the country and become common in many parts of North Carolina.
Despite being extensively hunted, the wild dogs with the gray-brown and yellowish-gray pelts have adapted to suburban and urban encroachment.
The wily coyotes have been described by some landowners as a menace.
In North Carolina, where hunting of most animals is restricted by seasons, methods and bag limits, the Wildlife Commission amended its rules governing the hunting of coyotes in 2012.
Coyotes may be taken on private lands, day or night, and on public lands during daylight. Hunters are also allowed to take coyotes a half-hour before sunrise and a half-hour after sunrise, but state-issued permits are necessary for that.
The rule changes also allow hunters to use spotlights and artificial calls, a change that so troubled conservationists that they sought an injunction in state court.
Through their legal challenge, the conservationists were able to delay implementation of the rule for months. But despite complaints, the General Assembly allowed the permanent rule to go into effect in late July, opening the door for further challenge in the courts.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death for red wolves. In 2012, eight wolves were killed by hunters. Overall, 29 percent of the red wolf population was killed by gunshot from 2000 to 2013, according to statistics gathered by Becky Bartel, assistant coordinator for the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
To allow hunting in the area that is for their recovery is just nonsensical, said Sierra Weaver, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, counsel for the Red Wolf Coalition, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute, which brought the federal lawsuit.
The Red Wolf Recovery Area includes about 1.7 million acres that stretch across four national wildlife refuges, the U.S. Air Forces Dare County Bombing Range, state-owned and private lands. The area touches Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington and Beaufort counties.
The conservation groups argue the state Wildlife Commission violated the federal Endangered Species Act by establishing a rule that results in the unlawful take of red wolves.
Gordon Myers, executive director of the state Wildlife Commission, was traveling to the western part of the state when he learned about the lawsuit and had not read a copy of the complaint.
Though he declined to comment on the accusations until he had time to review the details, he said the issue is not as straight-forward as it has been presented during the past year.
In general, we dont believe our regulations constitute any violations of the Endangered Species Act, Myers said Thursday evening.