Members of conservation groups and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission met today to discuss a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court over the impact of expanded hunting privileges on coyotes, and the potential impact on the state’s red wolf population.
Last week two red wolves were killed in the eastern part of North Carolina. That puts the number of red wolves killed in the last year at 10. Which when you are dealing with a total population of red wolves in the wild at 100 is cause for alarm. More so when you consider that just 100 years ago the robust red wolf population was thriving up and down the eastern seaboard. By the 1920’s the population had gone all but extinct because of hunting and disease.
Then in 1987 an ambitious project was undertaken at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in Columbia, North Carolina about 50 miles west of the coast. Eight wolves were brought there and set free. Kim Wheeler is executive director the Red Wolf Coalition and has been monitoring the health of red wolves in this state for years. She spoke with me about the growing problem.
KIM WHEELER: It is a story of trying to recover a top predator and it had never been done before. There was no blueprint. Nobody handed them a book and said this is how you do it.
PHOEBE JUDGE: So in 1987 eight red wolves were released in eastern North Carolina everyone crossed their fingers.
KIM WHEELER: Absolutely, because they really didn’t know what the animals would do. They came in and did about a year of education and outreach trying to let the public know this is what we think is going to happen. 1987, in September, the animals come and they release them and, like you said, everybody keeps their fingers crossed. To me that is the cool thing they did not know what the animals were going to do but they knew that they would be to work their hardest to solve whatever issue may have come up and they have in the last 26 years.
PHOEBE JUDGE: Here’s the problem. The fact is that it is not just red wolves that live in eastern North Carolina, it is coyotes also. Coyotes and red wolves are different animals. They are absolutely different species, but the problem is that it can be easily mistaken for a coyote.
KIM WHEELER: Absolutely, especially this time of year when it is hunting season. Puppies born in the spring are about the size of a coyote. So it is very difficult to tell the difference. That is why in a perfect world we would love no hunting in the five county recovery areas.
PHOEBE JUDGE: What we are talking about now is the fact that in the last year ten red wolves have been killed, some shot. As an endangered species there is a criminal penalty, a maximum of one year in jail and a $100,000 fine for anyone who is found to have shot a red wolf. The idea is that people may be mistaking red wolves for coyotes, which are legal to shoot in the state of North Carolina.
KIM WHEELER: Correct it is legal to shoot. It is open season on coyotes.
PHOEBE JUDGE: This summer the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission adopted a new rule which would allow for expanded privileges for hunting coyotes. As someone who is absolutely invested in the success of the population of red wolves in North Carolina. What did you think when you heard that news?
KIM WHEELER: Well I don’t think hunting anything at night is a good idea. I do understand that our agency responsible for the management of wildlife received a tremendous amount of pressure from the hunting community to have other opportunities to hunt. We have a coyote population that has certainly grown and I think the initial reaction was to shoot them.
PHOEBE JUDGE: But there is an argument, whether coyotes should be allowed to be shot or not, that coyotes can be a nuisance for farmers and for people with livestock.
KIM WHEELER: Absolutely. I totally think anybody that has any depredation issues or nuisance, that animal there should be some action taken, absolutely.
PHOEBE JUDGE: You are out there and you are trying to raise your chickens or this or that and there are these coyotes that are killing them because they are looking for food and you get incredibly frustrating. So people are put in this position of maybe not necessarily wanting to shoot a coyote but not really knowing what to do.
KIM WHEELER: They have not taught people that live in an area where they have livestock good husbandry and there are things that you can do as a first line before you reach for a gun. Again I am not saying if that is what you want to do to protect your livestock, chickens, whatever that is fine. That is between you and the state of North Carolina. I just think the state of North Carolina, we need to get more education about how to live with coyotes and I just think we have been a little negligent in that area as a state.
PHOEBE JUDGE: The Red Wolf Coalition is part of a lawsuit that was brought against the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to try to figure out a way, or I think I will say demand a way, to address this issue. Ten percent of the population was wiped out in the state of North Carolina last year. It is obviously a problem. What would you like to have happen?
KIM WHEELER: I would like for the state of North Carolina to give the red wolf a chance to survive on this landscape. One of the goals of the red wolf program was to have three reintroduction sites. So anything we learn here in North Carolina, if they can find two other sites they will carry that forward, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department will know how to work with a state. These are issues that came up. Coyotes are in every state. How do we deal with that? How do we deal with people issues? All the issues that this recovery program has had to deal with in 26 years. They will be able to put it in a book and hand it to somebody and say here, this is what worked this is what didn’t work.
PHOEBE JUDGE: But you feel that the expanded hunting privileges on coyotes can only have a detrimental affect to the red wolf population.
KIM WHEELER: I do, I do believe. You know hunting is the number one cause of red wolf mortality. Last week we had two wolves killed, one on Monday one on Wednesday. Something has to give and that again in my perfect world would be to not have any hunting in that five county recovery area.
PHOEBE JUDGE: You have two wolves that you care for. Think about the first time that you saw a red wolf. What was it and what did you see in that animal that made you think, boy we can’t let these things go away, this is too important.
KIM WHEELER: I have only ever seen two in the wild. I think it was just a fluke. They were going from one stand of trees to another. For me what always resonated with me, at Alligator River they used to do red wolf howlings and we led those howlings for five years. Imagine standing in the dark, in the woods, in a starry filled night. A little moon. We would have 50, 60, 70 people and it was my job to get the wolves to howl. Now at Alligator River there is a captive facility back there that is only used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, most times there were some wolves back there. So I would howl and what got me is that when they howled back standing in that darkness, hearing that howl knowing that if it had not been for the work of those early biologists there would have been no red wolf sound. For me it more the howl than seeing them. I get to see them every day and I still think it is amazing. Sometimes I look at them, their names are Hank and Betty, and I think you know if somebody hadn’t been doing all this work all these years Hank and Betty wouldn’t be here.
PHOEBE JUDGE: So you can howl and a wolf will howl back?
KIM WHEELER: Yeah.
PHOEBE JUDGE: So if I actually knew that I could howl and that something, a wolf or dog, might respond I would go out and do it this evening. I wonder if you might show us this howl.
KIM WHEELER: Howls.
Kim Wheeler is executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition. One of a number of groups taking part in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District court. She spoke with Phoebe Judge.
We invited the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to take part in the conversation. They declined but offered this statement, The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission believes current coyote hunting regulations are in the best interest of the public, the environmental and the agricultural community, and do so without any violations of the federal endangered species act.