By night, hunters would blast red wolves into extinction

Betty, a female red wolf, roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia.
Betty, a female red wolf, roams in a fenced area at the Red Wolf Education Center in Columbia. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Just before Christmas 2016, somewhere in the 110,000-acre Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, another red wolf was found shot to death. Whether the person who shot that wolf thought they were killing a coyote or knew they were shooting one of the world’s most endangered mammal species is hard to say for sure. What is for sure, though, is that the red wolf population has been shredded by bullets since 2012, to the point where at last count the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only knew of 29 red wolves with functioning radio-collars.

The red wolf is our snow leopard, our giant panda, our Siberian tiger (actually all three of those species have much larger wild populations than red wolves). But rather than trying to save the red wolf, a few of the political leaders of North Carolina are actively trying to finish it off.

The latest salvo is an attempt by N.C. Sen. Bill Cook of Beaufort County to allow nighttime coyote hunting in the five counties that make up the red wolf recovery area. No one can tell a coyote from a red wolf just by looking down the beam of a spotlight. The proposed law, if it stood up to court challenges, which it won’t, would provide the perfect cover for anyone to go out shooting wolves under cover of darkness.

Why do people want to shoot red wolves and coyotes? The dominant industry in the red wolf recovery area is large-scale crop farming, and the wild canids pose little threat to corn and soybeans, especially in comparison to serious crop pests like white-tailed deer. But a multi-millionaire real estate developer has been working since 2012 to build up landowner resentment toward the red wolf program. He has met with some success by repeating one strident claim over and over: That the red wolf has caused the “greatest wildlife disaster in the history of North Carolina.”

Some landowners apparently are willing to buy into the notion that a carnivore like a wolf or coyote must be destroying their local deer and wild turkey populations. This sentiment is admirable in the sense that it demonstrates a conservation ethic for protecting game species from extinction. But it turns out to be misplaced.

Deer and wild turkey are both doing well across North Carolina, despite the presence of coyotes in all 100 counties by the year 2000. For example, 2013 provided the record statewide harvest of white-tailed deer, and in 2015 wild turkey populations hit record highs. Deer and turkey also remain quite abundant inside the red wolf recovery area – in fact the reported deer harvest in Tyrrell County (where the anti-wolf real estate developer has his hunting preserve) has increased 270 percent since the wolves were reintroduced in 1987!

In part to address landowner concerns over the impact of the wolves, Wildlands Network set up 23 motion-sensitive wildlife cameras at various points in Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes NWR’s, along with a few tracts of private land. Rather than tell you what we’ve seen, I’d rather people go to our Flickr site and judge for themselves. In the interest of transparency, we’re continuing to post all of the tens of thousands of wildlife photos online as we collect them: www.flickr.com /photos/redwolfreality /albums

The Albemarle Peninsula is still wild and expansive enough to support a robust hunting culture and a recovering population of red wolves. But the wolves will only bounce back if people stop shooting them, and that is going to take some serious landowner outreach and myth-busting on the part of the U.S. FWS and the conservation groups that want the wolf to survive.

Ron Sutherland, Ph.D., of Durham is a conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network, a national group dedicated to creating an environment “where humans co-exist in harmony with the land and its wild inhabitants.”