RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) - North Carolina's approval of coyote hunting allows illegal killing of the world's only surviving wild population of endangered red wolves, which look like coyotes, conservationists claim in court.
In violation of the Endangered Species Act, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission this summer approved a rule authorizing coyote hunting, knowing that it would endanger red wolves, according to the complaint.
The Southern Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute sued the state commission, in Federal Court.
Last year the groups challenged in state court a temporary rule authorizing night hunting of coyotes. Now they have sued on behalf of thousands of members and supporters who live close to the Red Wolf Recovery Area, in eastern North Carolina.
"The Commission's authorization of coyote hunting through its rules, licensing, and other permits causes the illegal take of red wolves to be committed by hunters mistaking red wolves for coyotes," the complaint states. "Because of the similarity of appearance between red wolves and coyotes, it is nearly impossible for individual hunters to avoid shooting red wolves. This is especially true under new regulations allowing coyote hunting at night, with spotlights, in the Red Wolf Recovery Area."
The federal government listed the red wolf as an endangered species in 1967, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act.
Red wolves bred in captivity were reintroduced to their native range in North Carolina in the 1980s, after the government declared them extinct in the wild.
Now North Carolina is home to the world's only wild population of red wolves: about 100 of the animals live in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
The Red Wolf Recovery Area includes 1.7 million acres that stretch across four national wildlife refuges, the U.S. Air Force's Dare County Bombing Range, and state-owned and private lands. The area includes parts of Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington and Beaufort counties.
"The red wolf (Canis rufus
) has been pushed to the edge of extinction," the complaint states. "Once common throughout the eastern and south-central United States, most red wolf populations were destroyed by the early 20th century as a result of intensive predator control programs and the degradation and alteration of habitat. Today, the red wolf is one of the most endangered species in the world."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that despite recovery efforts, the red wolf remains an endangered species that might never be safe from extinction, according to the complaint.
The "taking" of a red wolf, which is defined as harassing, harming, shooting or wounding a protected animal, is controlled under the Endangered Species Act.
North Carolina, which restricts hunting of most animals by season, methods and bag limits, amended its rules on coyote hunting in 2012.
Coyotes may be taken on private lands, day or night, and on public lands during daylight. Hunters are allowed to take coyotes a half hour after sunset to a half hour before sunrise, with a state-issued permit.
Conservationists blocked enforcement of a temporary rule allowing hunters to use spotlights and artificial calls, but the General Assembly allowed the permanent rule to take effect in late July, according to the complaint.
The groups claim coyote hunting increases the risk of gunshot mortality for red wolves, which can be easily mistaken for coyotes.
Red wolves are mostly brown and buff colored with some black along their backs; there is sometimes a reddish color behind their ears, on their muzzle, and toward the backs of their legs. However, many red wolves can have the same colors as coyotes, which tend to be light gray with some black on the tips of their outer hairs.
Though red wolves, as a species, are larger in both height and weight, some can be smaller than large coyotes.
Researchers used to believe that coyotes did not hunt in packs like wolves, but pack-hunting coyotes have been observed in the wild, according to conservationists.
The plaintiffs claim up to 10 percent of the wild red wolf population has been shot each year since 2008, making shooting the leading cause of red wolf mortality.
"Overall, 29 percent of the wild red wolf population was killed by gunshot from 2000 to 2013, an increase of 17 percent from the period of 1987 to 2000, according to a presentation given by Becky Bartel, assistant coordinator for the Red Wolf Recovery Program, on Aug. 13, 2013," the complaint states.
The groups say night hunting makes it even harder for hunters to distinguish between the species.
They claim the hunting harms and harasses red wolves by disrupting population dynamics and breeding habits of red wolves and coyotes, and increasing interbreeding between the species.
To prevent wolves interbreeding with coyotes - another threat to the wolf population - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sterilizes coyotes that have territories in red wolf habitat. Shooting of sterilized coyotes also harms the native red wolf population by undermining coyote population control efforts, according to the lawsuit.
The groups seek an injunction and a declaration that the new rules violate the Endangered Species Act.
They are represented by Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
"Mistaken identity is a lethal, but preventable, threat to the world's only wild population of endangered red wolves," Weaver said in a statement. "Gunshot is the leading cause of death for these rare animals, and allowing the hunting of coyotes in core red wolf habitat substantially increases the risk to red wolves."
Tara Zuardo, a wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement: "Following the mandate of the Endangered Species Act, the federal government has gone to great lengths to reintroduce the red wolf into the wild and provide for its recovery. For a state agency to encourage hunting - in the middle of the recovery area - of an animal that cannot readily be distinguished from the red wolf, and to further sanction such hunting at night, defies logic and certainly sabotages red wolf recovery."
A spokesman for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission defended coyote hunting regulations.
The Wildlife Commission takes the illegal killing of red wolves seriously and will continue investigating any such action in its jurisdiction, spokesman Geoff Cantrell said in an email.
Noting that the group is reviewing the complaint, Cantrell pointed out that "coyotes are a non-native species that pose a predatory threat to pets and livestock, and are potential disease carriers."
"Trapping and hunting, and night hunting on private lands, are effective tools for landowners to manage these localized coyote populations," he added.