A barrage of gunfire in Eastern North Carolina is cutting into the tenuous numbers of some of the rarest animals on earth, red wolves.
About 100 wolves roam the wild, all on the 1.7 million-acre Albemarle Peninsula on the state’s northeastern coast. They’re the survivors of a species declared extinct in nature decades ago.
Five wolves have been shot since mid-October, and the last trace of a sixth – a cut-off radio collar – suggests foul play. All six were of breeding age, and one wolf had pups earlier this year.
Killing the endangered wolves is a federal crime, and $26,000 in rewards have been offered. No tips have come in so far.
“I’ve essentially gone from 11 breeding pairs to eight in less than a month,” said David Rabon, red wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Those are horrific numbers when you’ve got such a small number to begin with.”
Gunshot wolves are Rabon’s occupational hazard. Guns killed about one-third of the wolves that have died in recent years, with vehicle collisions, disease, traps and other causes accounting for the rest.
But 2013, the 26th year of the recovery program, took a grim turn.
The year brought not only a probable record number of shootings – eight confirmed, two suspected – but an unusually high proportion of the 14 overall deaths. Gunshot deaths, most of them of breeding-age wolves, have been on the uptick since 2004 and have increased for four straight years.
It’s unknown how many shootings are malicious. This much is clear: Young wolves look a lot like coyotes, which are common across the state. And the state now allows coyotes to be shot on sight, day or night.
“We get calls on a daily basis regarding coyotes,” said Geoff Cantrell, a spokesman for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “It goes along with missing cats or small dogs,” which often fall prey to coyotes.
The open season on coyotes only compounds the mistaken-identity problem for wolves, three environmental groups said in a federal lawsuit against the wildlife commission filed in October.
The groups plan to ask a judge for an injunction halting coyote shooting in the five counties that wolves roam. They say the state’s rules violate the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing coyote hunting in wolf territory.
The wildlife commission took a further step last year, allowing nighttime hunting of coyotes with spotlights, despite public appeals to ban the practice in the wolf-occupied counties.
“The spotlighting rule, in our view, has just made matters worse,” said Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Chapel Hill office, which represents the groups in the federal lawsuit. The expanded shooting hours may lead to more wolves being shot, he said.
The wildlife commission defends its coyote rules as “in the best interest of the public, the environment and the agricultural community.” It denies breaking federal law.
“Coyotes are a non-native species that pose a predatory threat to pets and livestock, and are potential disease carriers,” a commission statement said. “Trapping and hunting, and night hunting on private lands, are effective tools for landowners to manage these localized coyote populations.”
Mistaken as fearsome
The federal biologists who watch over red wolves know something’s wrong when the radio collars that 61 of the animals wear – down from 66 in September – signal no movement for a time. It’s called “mortality mode.”
By the time a dead wolf is found, its remains may have been picked over by scavengers. That is one reason it’s hard to judge, for example, whether a wolf was spotlighted at night.
Rabon says some shooters are telling the truth when they report mistaking wolves for coyotes. Deer hunting season in Eastern North Carolina began Oct. 12, near the beginning of the latest crop of wolf shootings, and bear season opened for six days in mid-November.
“I think there also might be people who are misinformed, or who misunderstand the wolf and what it represents, and set out to kill the wolf or at least shoot it if the opportunity presents itself,” Rabon said.
Despite red wolves’ retiring nature, it’s hard for them to shake an ancient image as fearsome predators. Red wolves have been accused of killing domestic cats and goats on the Albemarle Peninsula, but never of attacking a human.
One person, a Hyde County farmer who said he thought he was shooting a coyote in 1990, has been prosecuted for killing a red wolf. The farmer pleaded guilty and paid a $2,000 donation to a state wildlife fund.
The N.C. Wildlife Federation, whose members include many hunters, condemned the latest shootings and chipped in $7,500 toward the reward fund.
“These landowners are playing God-squad,” said chief executive Tim Gestwicki. “We need (large animals) in the ecosystem. We should be reveling in this species and not shooting it like a pest.”
‘An act of cowardice’
The local anger and resentment of wolves that boiled up after their 1987 reintroduction to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge seems to have cooled, said Asheville writer DeLene Beeland. UNC Press published her book, “The Secret World of Red Wolves,” in June.
Deer, on which red wolves sometimes prey, have maintained healthy numbers. Hunters on the Albemarle Peninsula took 63 percent more deer in 2012 than in 1987. Farmers credit wolves for killing destructive rodents called nutria.
“I found people who thought that their lives had been enriched by having red wolves around,” Beeland said. “I think people who are absolutely against the wolves are in the minority, but they’re very vocal.”
An Outer Banks Voice news account of the recent shootings drew this anonymous comment: “Total waste of taxpayer money. If they disappear tomorrow, no one will notice.”
Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition of Columbia, N.C., a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, calls shooting wolves “an act of cowardice.”
“The kicker is, these last six wolves, they were all collared animals,” she said. “Hunters are smart people – they know that collared wolves are tracked animals. To shoot a collared animal is just an act of disrespect.”
A resemblance to coyotes
An opinion piece in Raleigh’s News & Observer last month cited 2012 genetic research in asserting that red wolves are actually coyotes.
“The environmental groups should drop their lawsuit against the state, step back for reflection and celebrate the resilience of an amazing animal,” wrote Winston-Salem wildlife biologist John Wooding. “As much as the groups want to help, they aren’t needed in this case – the red wolf did it on its own.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service agrees that red wolves and coyotes share a common ancestry and are more alike than either is to gray wolves.
Like most canids, the two readily interbreed. Alligator River biologists capture, sterilize and release “placeholder” coyotes to keep cross-breeders at bay.
Breaking apart stable breeding pairs of red wolves, says research from the University of Idaho, increases the odds that later litters of the surviving mate will be coyote hybrids.
But red wolves and coyotes are distinct species, the agency says.
Rabon said that’s clear by close observation. Despite the resemblance of young wolves to coyotes, he said, adult wolves weigh about twice as much as coyotes. And as former top predators, wolves are wary but display a certain nonchalance not seen among coyotes.
That makes them more likely visible – and potential targets – to people.
Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender