It’s estimated that there are less than 100 red wolves in existence, and they roam a five county area in northeastern North Carolina. Now, these small pockets are endangered further. We explore the two most recent red wolf deaths in Washington County and the reward being offered for any information leading to an arrest.
UPDATE: Another red wolf was found dead in northeastern North Carolina. The Associated Press reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that a red wolf was found dead in Tyrrell County on Tuesday of an apparent gunshot wound. Officials also found a red wolf radio collar that appeared to have been cut off.
Coyotes are no strangers to eastern North Carolina. They’re highly adaptable and thrive in forest areas, on agricultural lands and even urban environments. But this isn’t a feature on coyotes. It’s really about the endangered red wolf. Red wolves were almost hunted to extinction until human intervention saved the species from disappearing altogether. Red wolves and coyotes look alike, though there are some subtle differences. But as far as their populations, coyotes have taken over a 5-county region of northeastern North Carolina also known as the Red Wolf Recovery area. US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program coordinator David Rabon.
“Coyotes have been well documented in all 100 counties in North Carolina and it appears that the population has grown over the last 20 to 30 years.”
On the other hand, the only wild population of red wolves left in the world exists in Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington counties. Red wolves were put on the endangered species list in 1967 and by the 1980’s, they were thought to be extinct. In an effort to save the red wolf, a captive breeding program was started in 1981. US Fish and Wildlife Officials decided northeastern North Carolina provided good habitat, a good prey base for the animals, low human population density, and at the time...no coyotes."
“One of the problems that the animal had experienced in its last days in the wild back in the 60’s was basically hybridizing with the coyote. It was reproducing and creating hybrid animals. So there was a threat of genetic swamping of the red wolf. So that is why North Carolina was chosen. It offered those features, characteristics that would allow the population to be established.”
Thanks to the Recovery Program, red wolf populations were on the rebound. But as coyotes have spread into northeastern North Carolina, red wolf numbers have declined. Rabon estimates that less than 100 exist in the wild.
“There’s all types of mortality that occur every year, everything from just natural death, old age, some disease, getting hit by a vehicle. Gunshot mortality appears to be one that’s contributing to the population decline. It’s certainly in terms of mortality, that is our single greatest source of mortality right now.”
A total of 20 red wolves have died from confirmed gunshots since 2008. A couple weeks ago, two red wolves wearing radio collars were found dead in Washington County. According to a press release from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, both red wolves died of suspected gunshot wounds. The first wolf was discovered on October 28th and the other two days later, both within a quarter mile of each other. Executive Director of the Red Wolf Coalition Kim Wheeler says it hasn’t been determined if the latest red wolf deaths are connected.
“It’s an ongoing criminal investigation. We’re hoping when they begin to figure out what happened, knocking on doors, looking at the evidence, that they’ll be able to make that determination but there’s no way to tell that.”
It’s also unclear at this time if the most recent red wolf deaths were a result of the nighttime hunting rule approved by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission on August 1st. Red Wolf Recovery Program coordinator David Rabon.
“We don’t have any data that would suggest one way or another. That’s partly because of… it’s hard to necessarily pinpoint a time of death that would imply that it was shot at night.”
Red wolves and coyotes are similar in appearance and are often mistaken for coyotes. According to Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center Sierra Weaver there are some slight differences. Coyotes are smaller, have pointed and erect ears, and long slender snouts. They also have a long bushy tail. She says the similarities are difficult to distinguish, especially at night.
“it makes an almost impossible ability to tell apart red wolves and coyotes entirely impossible. So we’re compounding an existing problem for an already highly highly impaired species.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit that shapes, implements, and enforces environmental laws and policies. Currently, a federal lawsuit is pending where the organization sued the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission for causing the illegal take of red wolves.
“There’s not much that has gone on with the court case. So far, we have filed our complaint and we are waiting for the state’s response.”
In 2012, another lawsuit challenging the night hunting rule was brought up by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It resulted in a ban on coyote hunting at night last fall.
As wildlife officials conduct an investigation on the two latest red wolf deaths, a reward of $21,000 is being offered for information leading to an arrest and criminal conviction. So far, Red Wolf Recovery Program Director Kim Wheeler says no one has come forward with any information.
“I always hope that as the reward pot gets bigger, it will start to loosen some lips. We’re just trying to talk to people, let them know if they don’t already know that this happened and that it is an endangered species and it is against the law and if they hear anything, to contact the law enforcement contacts on the press release.”
For more information on the North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program and to see pictures of the red wolf, visit publicradioeast.org. I'm Jared Brumbaugh.