RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge in North Carolina on Tuesday ordered a stop to coyote hunting near the world's only wild population of endangered red wolves because the animals look so similar and are easily confused.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that stopping coyote hunts in five northeastern North Carolina counties will reduce red wolf deaths that violate the Endangered Species Act. Boyle said he'd review his ruling in six months. The preliminary injunction blocks coyote hunting in Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell, and Washington counties until the start of a trial in a lawsuit that aims to permanently end hunting near the red wolf's territory.
Red wolves were believed to be extinct in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bred them in captivity for seven years before reintroducing about 100 of them into the wilderness in 1987. Since that time, some have been mistaken for coyotes and killed. The two species sometimes interbreed, creating hybrid animals that can appear similar to both.
The Southern Environmental Law Center sued North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission on behalf of three other groups in an effort to put an end to red wolf killings.
The commission voted last July to allow coyote hunting at any time of day with no bag limit on private land and on public land even at night with lights if the hunter has a permit. Coyote hunting was previously limited to daylight hours.
"By authorizing coyote hunting in the five-county red wolf recovery area, and in particular by authorizing coyote hunting during all seasons and at any time day or night, the commission has increased the likelihood that a red wolf will be shot," Boyle wrote in his order.
The wildlife commission will inform hunters about the judge's order, executive director Gordon Myers said in a statement.
"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," Myers said.
Both wolves and coyotes may be shot if they are attacking people or are in the act of killing livestock.
Adult red wolves weigh an average of about 20 pounds heavier than coyotes, but both stand about 2 feet tall at the shoulder and are about 4 feet long with their tail. Both species have similar coloration.
State regulators lack firm data on whether coyotes are multiplying or where. The wildlife commission estimates that about 25,000 coyotes were killed by hunters last year, based on survey responses by a sampling of the state's hunters, Myers told Boyle at a court hearing in February.
Boyle said he supported an effort by federal wildlife managers to capture, sterilize and return coyotes to red wolf territory. The sterilized coyotes claim hunting territory and defend it from new coyotes and prevent interbreeding with red wolves.