Proposed Wildlife Resources Commission rule could harm listed red wolves

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Since 1993 it's been legal to shoot coyotes during daylight hours throughout North Carolina any day of the year, but a new rule proposed by the state's Wildlife Resources Commission seeks to expand statewide coyote hunting opportunities to include the dark cover of night. The proposal would also allow the use of predator calls and artificial lights to lure and blind coyotes at nighttime anywhere hunting is currently legal. No permit would be required, and there would be no bag limit.

Many states allow nighttime coyote hunting, but North Carolina's case is unique because the bottomland swamps and pocosins of its far eastern coastal plain harbor the world's only wild population of federally-listed red wolves. And to the untrained eye, red wolves and coyotes can be hard to differentiate. Red wolves range in weight from 55 to 75 pounds, with some reaching up to 85, while coyotes are slighter and smaller at 35 to 40 pounds. They both have a tawny and brown pelage speckled with light and dark guard hairs. But red wolves appear larger. They have broader skulls, wider snouts, and a taller stature. They will often have a cinnamon or rufus-colored dusting of fur behind their ears and across their shoulders.

They are not red like a red fox; rather, it's the red of a forest animal camouflaged by dried pine needles, bark, and the dank humus of decaying hardwoods. Juvenile red wolves are most at risk for being mistaken for a coyote, between their first fall and second year when they are still immature and have not reached their full body size. Although they are occasionally spotted during the day, red wolves are most active at night.

The red wolf recovery area encompasses 1.7 million acres across five counties of farms and woods on the Albemarle Peninsula. In any given year, about 90 to 120 red wolves inhabit the peninsula, where they have been actively managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service since their reintroduction to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in1987.

Red wolves once ranged across the southeastern and central United States, but sustained persecution, deforestation and habitat destruction beginning with European contact pushed their populations to decline drastically. Beleaguered red wolves began hybridizing with coyotes. Exactly when hybridization began is a hotly debated issue, though it appears hybridization signals the red wolf's end, not it's beginning. (Some scientists assert the species arose recently as a hybrid cross between gray wolves and coyotes, though genetic studies and fossils exist which contradict this.) The current line of thought is that coyotes and red wolves share a common lineage as canids that evolved solely in North America, with red wolves coming about independently of gray wolves but also closely related to eastern wolves as well.

Today's red wolves in North Carolina are federally-listed as an endangered non-essential experimental population. Though the NEP status was originally drafted to allow the FWS more flexibility in managing the imperiled predator, populations with this status are often treated by wildlife management agencies as second-class citizens of the Endangered Species Act.

North Carolina appears to be taking this stance too. Kim Wheeler, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group the Red Wolf Coalition, said N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has so far refused to recognize the red wolf on its own state list of endangered species, despite a state rule requiring all federally-listed species found within North Carolina to also be listed at the state level. "They are breaking their own rule," Wheeler said. Her group posted a call to action of its members, asking them to write to the commission opposing the coyote hunting rule change.

And now that the state has proposed to allow nighttime coyote hunting, even within the red wolf recovery area, it appears that the state wildlife commission holds little value for an animal that some conservationists call the most imperiled canid in the world. The IUCN lists the red wolf as "critically endangered", its last ranking before "extinct in the wild."

Mistaken identity

Opponents to the new coyote hunting rule say it places red wolves at risk of being shot by mistake because of their physical similarity to coyotes. "We have suffered a number of problems during daylight hours with mistaken identity, and hunting at night is only going to add to that," said David Rabon, Red Wolf Recovery Program Coordinator. On average, six to eight red wolves are killed each year in cases where the shooter believed they were taking a coyote but instead shot a red wolf. Hunters taking part in a legal activity, coyote hunting, are not prosecuted or fined when they shoot a red wolf by mistake—though they may be investigated. In essence, the Fish and Wildlife Service's law enforcement's hands are tied in these cases.

The affinity between red wolves and coyotes does not stop at appearances. They also have similar ecologies, feeding on many of the same small prey items such as rodents, nutria, groundhogs and rabbits. Red wolves tend to hold, on average, territories that outsize coyote home ranges. They will also prey on white-tailed deer and historically were reported to take domesticated pigs and small calves.

Coyotes and red wolves will also interbreed under certain conditions and produce fertile hybrid offspring. To protect the reintroduced wild red wolf population from coyotes that began invading the recovery area in the mid to late 1990s, the Fish and Wildlife Service has sterilized coyotes in the five-county recovery area since about 2000. Rabon said the program is currently monitoring about 40 sterilized coyotes in Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties. These coyotes and all known red wolves wear radio collars, which might add to the identity confusion. (Though, one would think that the sight of a radio-collared canid would be enough to give a hunter pause.)

Rabon fears the rule change will harm his program's hybridization management if sterilized coyotes are shot. "We saw our wolf population grow considerably when we first started using sterilization techniques on coyotes," Rabon said. "But now, with the increased number of animals we've lost to gunshot mortality, both wolves and sterile coyotes being shot, we've actually seen an increase in the number of intact [fertile] coyotes moving in."

The idea has been that sterilized coyotes hold and defend a home range, which then prevents fertile coyotes from moving in to that area, which lowers the probability of hybridization occurring. But Rabon said as gunshot mortalities of wild canids in the peninsula have increased over the past few years, they've lost coyotes that were of management value to the program which allowed additional fertile coyotes creep further in. The field team believes that if they could lower the number of gunshot mortalities of both coyotes and red wolves, that they would see a reduction in hybridization events (they average one or two per year, but the offspring of these events are found and euthanized, as all the canids are collared and closely monitored) and an increase in the population growth.

Rabon questions how the proposed nighttime coyote hunting may adversely effect both the imperiled wolves and the sterilized coyotes that his program views as valuable. "But mostly I'm focusing on what they [the WRC] are trying to achieve," Rabon said.

It's an excellent question, and one that so far lacks a clear answer.

Wildlife management goals

Different WRC biologists have offered different interpretations for the management goals behind the proposed rule in various news stories (Citizen Times story here--attached as PDF to email) and public comments. Perry Sumner, a biologist in the WRC division of wildlife management, said the primary goal is to allow hunters more opportunities, citing input his agency has had from the N.C. Predator Hunters Association over the past several years. Secondary to that, he said it is "one more tool" for people to manage coyote "problems" in their area. In other words, it's about empowering people to feel like they can take care of a "problem" coyote themselves. But "problem" is a subjective term. To some, the mere presence of a coyote nearby may be viewed as a problem, while to others a problem may be repeated or sustained livestock depredations.

When asked if these two reasons were the WRC's official wildlife management goals, Sumner hesitated and declined to confirm that they were. After a long pause, he said: "That's the best I can do to interpret the rule justification."

Sumner would say there are some coyote issues in rural areas with livestock but that the WRC hears more numerous complaints from urbanites who have lost pets. He conceded the night-hunting rule would do nothing to help urban complaints because firearms can not be discharged in most municipalities. (The rule would only apply where hunting is currently legal: state gamelands, national forest lands, and private land with the permission of a landowner.)

Sumner confirmed that the state has not conducted surveys to determine how many coyotes are present or how they are distributed. He also acknowledged that the burden of scientific evidence shows hunting fails to manage coyote populations. "Historically, that has not worked," Sumner said. "That is why we did not include the word 'population' in our rule justification."

However, WRC division of wildlife management chief, David Cobb, flatly contradicted Sumner's statement at a public hearing in Asheville on March 21. The hearing was a listening session for the agency to acquire public comments on the proposed rule, and Cobb stated that a third goal was definitely to "control coyote populations." (Emphasis mine.)

Controlling at the population level versus controlling problem individuals within a population are two very different management issues, and the WRC's failure to clearly state which goal they seek to achieve is problematic considering what they are proposing to allow. The only goal their spokespeople have consistently agreed upon is giving hunters more opportunities to shoot coyotes.

Opponents say the double-speak is typical of a bureaucracy, and that avoiding giving a firm reason, or set of reasons, for the rule change allows the agency's arguments to be flexible.

Rabon said that if the commission truly is trying to achieve population control, there are other more proven methods to choose from whereas indiscriminate removal is unproven and unreliable.

"Random sterilization has been shown to be incredibly effective and long-lasting in controlling population numbers," Rabon said. "One study I read actually showed the population declined over a fifteen year period a little more than 84 percent." He said the study was a modeling exercise and not a field observation, but his own observations of sterilizing coyotes in the red wolf recovery area lead him to believe it was fairly accurate. He added that he would be happy to share his program's extensive data on coyote sterilization with the WRC.

Regardless of WRC's primary wildlife management goal, the proposed rule creates a clear management conflict for the red wolf program. "Our concern at this point is what effect this could have on red wolves as well as other wildlife and public safety," Rabon said.

Effect on red wolves

What might happen to red wolves if coyote hunting opportunities are essentially doubled? It's highly likely more red wolves will be shot, either by accident or simply because people feel like they'll be able to get away with it. What's not clear is what an increased rate of human-caused mortalities means to this imperiled population.

Last year, the first scientific paper to examine the effects of human-caused killings on red wolves—including being shot in cases of mistaken identity, hit by vehicles, and poached—was published in the science journal PLoS One. The senior author was Dennis Murray of Trent University in Peterborough, Canada and the lead author was Amanda Sparkman, then a postdoctoral fellow in wildlife research at TU. The study tested two ecological theories: one proposed that human-caused killings have an "additive" effect which reduces a population's overall survival rates, while the second proposed that human-caused killings trigger a "compensatory" effect which makes up for unnatural losses, possibly by reducing the natural mortality rate which then balances the overall survival rate.

The researchers divided the red wolf population growth into two major time periods, from 1990-1998 and 1999 to 2006, and classified the first timeframe as having a low population density (when the reintroduced population was still growing) and the second as having a high population density (when the recovery area began to approach being full).

They found that at low population densities, the red wolf population experienced a strong additive effect from human-caused killings. But at higher densities, they found evidence for both additive and compensatory effects. They hypothesized that as stable red wolf packs dissolved due to human-caused killings, it freed the surplus breeding-age red wolves to either begin breeding with the surviving mate, or to take over the territory of a dissolved pack and form an entirely new breeding pair.

At the time, the rate of pack dissolution and new breeding pair formations compared to the rate of human-caused killing was essentially a wash, said North Carolina State University veterinary medicine professor Michael Stoskopf. "What they reported is that it's not a good thing to have people shooting wolves, but it's also not going to be the thing that takes the population down at its current level of impact," said Stoskopf, who also chairs the Red Wolf Recovery Implementation Team, which has advised the recovery effort in the past.

Stoskopf said the study findings are highly dependent upon the specific population densities recorded at specific points in time, and the rate of human-caused killings tied to those densities. In other words, while it describes past scenarios, it does not have predictive powers upon which future management decisions could be based. "Once you change one of the [management] rules, everything is out the window on the math," Stoskopf said.

Stoskopf added that the study was as robust as can possibly be done because the researchers had access to the red wolf database which includes a complete pedigree of every wild red wolf that has inhabited the recovery area. "It's as complete [a database] as has ever been available for any wild population," he said. However, the authors did not detail at what threshold of density the compensatory effects might be diminished by the additive effects and lead to population decline.

A second study took the form of a dissertation under the tutelage of Lisette Waits, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Idaho (Waits was also a co-author to the Sparkman and Murray paper). Waits and her then-student, Justin Bohling, examined characteristics of individual red wolves that were involved in hybridization events verified to have occurred. They discovered that the majority of the red wolves that crossed with coyotes did so under similar circumstances.

"A high proportion of these hybridization events were occurring after the disruption of a stable breeding pair," Waits said. "Particularly, it’s been a problem associated with gunshot mortality during the hunting season, and the hunting season precedes the breeding season."

Waits and Bohling pored over breeding records and the individual life histories of red wolves known to have been involved in hybridization events between 2001 and 2009. They studied 21 hybrid litters and 91 red wolf litters and examined them for correlations with age and breeding experience, if the animal had a mixed red wolf/coyote ancestry, birthing location within the red wolf recover area, and whether pack disruption was a factor leading to future interspecies crosses. They found that the hybrid litters clustered toward the western side of the Albemarle peninsula, and that the average age of female breeders who birthed hybrid litters was slightly less, at 4.2 years old, than the average age of female breeders who birthed red wolf litters at about 5.4 years old. But perhaps the most interesting result was that 13 of the 21 hybrid litters were produced after a stable breeding pair of red wolves were broken apart. Seven of these dissolutions occurred because a breeder had been shot and killed, while two more involved the death of a breeder from poison or trap injuries—in all, nine of the 13 broken pairs were attributed to human actions.

Understanding the biological, behavioral and ecological factors that influence red wolves to interbreed with coyotes is important to knowing how to manage them to prevent hybridization events. Bohling wrote: "The intersection of behavioral ecology and hybridization may be especially poignant for the conservation of large carnivores [because] hybridization in carnivores is frequently linked to population declines..."

Which gets to the point that the red wolf program biologists strongly believe that if they could just get enough breeders to survive from year to year, they would in turn be dealing with fewer hybridization events and see the red wolf's population grow. (Rabon believes there is still room on the peninsula to accommodate more red wolves, though others have questioned if perhaps suitable red wolf habitat there is saturated.) But not everyone thinks it is so black-and-white. Stoskopf says that while he hates to ever see a red wolf get shot, he believes the current rate of anthropogenic killings is not statistically or significantly hindering the wolves' population growth.

When asked if he thought the proposed rule change would hinder red wolf recovery in the future, Stoskopf gave a carefully measured response. "I think it's an unfortunate decision, but it's a really complex political issue. The biggest problems that face the red wolf and its future are the human interaction issues," he said. "From a pure perspective of managing a reintroduction, it would have been better not to see this go in this direction."

Effect on coyotes

The effect of the rule change on red wolves remains a big question mark, but it may be a little easier to predict the effect it could have on coyotes. And if population control truly is a WRC management goal, it's safe to say they are setting themselves up for failure by adopting a method of indiscriminate removal. In fact, they may be setting themselves up for fostering more coyotes on the landscape.

A study underway at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center may provide needed insight into how coyotes respond biologically to hunting pressure, an issue that is surprisingly under-studied. An oft-repeated claim is that coyotes have more frequent and larger litters when persecuted. This statement is often perpetuated by coyote advocates and can be traced back to a 1972 paper by biologist Fred Knowlton. But in truth, whether this is the mechanism that causes coyote populations to compensate for persecution is not settled science.

Jonathan Way of Eastern Coyote Research is currently working on a study as a postdoc at YERC where he and center director Robert Crabtree are trying to untangle how coyotes respond at the meta-population level to persecution. Meta-populations are composed of smaller populations between which there is some degree of genetic exchange.

Way said their preliminary data shows that coyotes in areas of persecution have higher rates of pup survival, likely due to a greater availability of resources compared to un-persecuted areas. However, in the hunted and unhunted areas, coyote litter sizes tend to be the same. The greater pup survival rate alters the normal distribution of individuals across age classes, potentially creating a breeding ground swell. "Lots of indiscriminate killing fragments their family units and can reduce the size of established territories," Way said. "You essentially wind up with a population composed mostly of younger animals where there is more breeding going on." Way and Crabtree are preparing their data for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Roland Kays, a coyote researcher and director of the Nature Research Center (website here) biodiversity lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science, offered a different opinion that increased hunting will have a relatively low impact on coyote abundance. "But it can absolutely have an effect on their behavior," Kays said. "It makes them shyer and more leery of people. But no matter how hard people try to reduce their population, it does not tend to work." Kays adds that an abundance of food likely influences their population growth more so than hunting.

Rabon suggests that history is also a good guide. "I think the fact that coyotes exist everywhere today is a good example that indiscriminate removal does not work," he said.

Public safety

North Carolinians who attended a public hearing in Asheville on March 21 spoke up about safety concerns, citing their desire to walk the woods at night and their fear of taking children camping on state gamelands if nighttime coyote hunting were allowed. Coyote hunters like to shine a light on their target at night, then shoot between the eyes that reflect back. One concerned citizen and hunter said he hoped other hunters would recognize that the glint of his eyes, six feet off the ground, were not those of a coyote; but he worried that an inexperienced hunter might mistake his six-year old, whose eyes are lower to the ground. He asked the commission to consider removing all gamelands from the proposal.

A Forest Service agent attending the meeting told a story of a colleague who was shot dead by a coyote hunter in 2010 in the Oconee National Forest in Georgia. The agent, Christopher Upton, was monitoring nighttime hunting with binoculars when a coyote hunter shot at the glint of the agent's optics and killed him. The agent in Asheville said he was going to recommend to his district supervisor that all national forestlands in N.C. be removed from the proposal due to concerns for agent and public safety; especially considering that the WRC was proposing this with no permit process, which essentially stripped him of his authority to regulate and monitor hunting in his forest.

One hunter spoke up that following ethical hunting practices would eliminate all of the concerns raised. A second hunter said he'd support the rule if it was changed to be permitted. A third hunter acknowledged that bad apples do spoil the sport and cause problems for the rest of them by shooting from running vehicles, taking game animals out of season, poaching on private land and hunting recklessly while drinking. He felt allowing un-permitted night hunting would only worsen those incidences.

No one brought up the second tragic incident of 2010, when fourteen-year-old Garret Griffin accidentally shot and killed himself in Indiana while hunting coyotes at night, alone.

Supporters of the rule have voiced concerns over the perceived threats coyotes pose to people, especially kids, as the canids move into our neighborhoods and cities. Coyote researcher Way said that coyotes have a search image for prey that is much closer to a medium-sized mammal such as a rabbit or a cat than an upright four-year-old child walking and screaming outside, "hopefully with adult supervision." He opined that fears of coyotes attacking people in the U.S. are generally out of proportion to the relative risk. "On average, there are a handful of coyote bites per year, while dog bites send people to the emergency room at a rate of 1,000 per day," he said. "Coyotes are a statistical non-issue in this regard." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 800,000 people in the U.S. seek treatment for dog bites each year, and of these, about 16 die.

Some research also indicates that where coyote attacks on humans have occurred, there is a high correlation to human food sources in the coyotes' diets, such as household trash, pet food left outside, tethered dogs, free-roaming cats and landscaping elements such as fish ponds. Sometimes, people even intentionally feed coyotes. Within this context, it's important to understand that simply killing coyotes randomly will not ease these conflicts, whereas people modifying their behaviors to reduce human-related food sources available to coyotes will greatly reduce the potential for aggressive encounters with coyotes and possible attacks.


Way did not mince words about his opinion of the proposed rule. "This is ultimately about putting hunters over every other user of wildlife," he said. "To allow people to do this, to take wildlife management into their own hands, I have a big problem with that. [Plus,] to allow hunting of one species that is so closely related to, and so similar looking to, a second species that is fully endangered is just bizarre."

Kays said he believes the coyote population, which is relatively new to North Carolina, will continue to increase in the future. "Not by a lot more, but by a little more," he said, because there is a niche for them to be here and plenty of wild food available to them. But he questioned, as someone who likes to walk in the woods at night, whether coyote hunters are actually more dangerous to the human population than coyotes are to humans. Kays also pointed out that coyote presence has been shown to reduce the presence of some animals humans dislike, like rodents and nutria while increasing the presence of other animals perceived to be valuable such as songbirds and some types of waterfowl (because coyotes reduce foxes and other mesopredators that prey on the birds' nests).

Kim Wheeler echoed Kays' comment about coyotes filling an ecological niche here which, she added, would likely not be open had the red wolf not been previously exterminated. Wheeler advocated teaching coexistence instead of trying to "shoot them away, which has never worked anyways."

"It's so cool that this is the only place in the world that we have this animal, the red wolf," Wheeler said. "But they're [the WRC] putting people in a position to shoot an endangered species, and that's against the law."


Anyone may submit comments on the proposed rule change by writing an email ( to the Wildlife Resources Commission, or filling out an online form. If emailing, specify your comment is about night hunting coyotes with artificial lights, include in the message body where you live, and include if you agree or disagree with the proposal and why.

The public comment period is open until April 16, 2012.