A federal judge halted North Carolina’s open season on coyotes in five coastal counties Tuesday because rare red wolves are being mistakenly killed.
The two species look much alike, leading to mistaken identities.
Shooting deaths threaten the survival of the approximately 100 wolves that roam northeastern North Carolina, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle wrote.
The injunction he granted stops coyote hunting in Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington and Beaufort counties. Those counties cover the 1.7 million acres that the federally protected wolves roam.
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Boyle will review the injunction in six months.
Once facing extinction, the timid wolves were released into the sprawling Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987. Their numbers eventually grew to about 130 animals, but their population has declined over the past decade.
Gunshots are the leading cause of death for wolves of breeding age. Nine wolves were killed by confirmed or suspected gunshots last year. Two more have been shot and killed so far this year.
The lawsuit filed by three wildlife advocacy groups said the state’s liberal rules on shooting coyotes, a predator now found in all North Carolina counties, violates the federal Endangered Species Act that protects wolves.
A N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission rule last July that allowed night hunting for coyotes made it a “near impossibility” to avoid mistakes, Boyle wrote in his order.
The state’s coyote rule “is one where the permitting and encouragement of the hunting of one species greatly improves the chances that a protected species will be taken,” he wrote.
Boyle ruled that coyotes may still be shot in defense of a person’s safety or the safety of others, or if livestock or pets are threatened. He also dismissed the wildlife commission as a defendant in the lawsuit, while keeping individual members as defendants.
Injunctions may be issued if a judge decides the plaintiff would likely win at trial and is in the public interest.
“It’s what we were seeking in terms of halting coyote hunting in red wolf territory,” said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the wildlife groups. “That will hopefully stop the loss of wolves that are threatened by these rules.”
The wildlife commission said it is reviewing the order.
“However, upon initial review, it appears that the order provides the exact same level of protection to coyotes, an invasive, non-native species, as is afforded to red wolves, a species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act,” the agency said in a statement.
“Under this order, private landowners in the counties of Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell, and Washington are now prohibited from shooting coyotes, day or night, except under extremely limited circumstances. We are continuing to review the order and will work with the public to ensure compliance.”