Federal authorities are offering a $2,500 reward for information about a rare red wolf found dead in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge several days before Christmas.
An examination of the animal, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service news release, showed it likely died on Dec. 21 from a gunshot.
Because red wolves are a protected species, information leading to arrest could bring a large reward.
Red wolves had been declared extinct in the wild. Then in 1987, four pairs of captive wolves were transferred from Texas to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Since then, the population grew to about 130 red wolves in the 1.7 million acre recovery area spanning Hyde, Dare, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.
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That number has declined, partly because of the proliferation of coyotes, a similar looking animal, in the area. Because of the similarities, some red wolves have been shot in cases of mistaken identity. Additionally, there has been cross-breeding of the coyote and wolves.
Now, fish and wildlife officials estimate that there are fewer than 45 red wolves remaining in the wild.
“This is a tragedy,” Ben Prater, Southeast program director of the Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement released Friday. “We know that gunshot is one of the leading causes of death for red wolves and it can be prevented. The poaching of any wild animal is intolerable but the intentional killing of one of the world’s most endangered species is inexcusable.”
Prater said in a release that Defenders of Wildlife plan to match the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s award for information regarding this wolf’s death “to send a clear message: poaching of these incredibly rare wolves will not be tolerated or go unpunished.”
The Defenders of Wildlife had been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the red wolf recovery program until this fall. That was when the federal government announced its plans to reduce the protected wolf territory to an area in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the military bombing range in Dare County. Wolves outside that area would be removed to captive populations that reside in numerous zoos.
In September 2016, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle issued an order that temporarily halts the federal government from capturing and killing, as well as authorizing private landowners to capture and kill, red wolves. Boyle’s order prohibited the removal of wolves from private property, unless it can be shown there is a threat to humans, pets or livestock.
“What had been happening lately is that individual landowners have required wolves to be removed from their property, because they don’t like them,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs. “They can’t be removed just because they’re present on the property.”
An earlier lawsuit ruled on by the same judge led to a ban in 2014 of nighttime coyote hunting in the recovery area – a practice that conservation groups blamed for a spike in wolf gunshot deaths.
Red wolves are smaller than gray wolves but bigger than coyotes. They weigh about 55 to 85 pounds and are brown with patches of red behind their ears. There was a time when they ranged from southern New England to Florida and as far west as central Missouri and Texas.