It’s finally legal! After several months of public hearings and controversy, temporary rules that allow hunting coyotes and feral swine at night with a light on private lands went into effect on the first of August. Predator hunters are happy about the new rule but red wolf (AKA “red coyotes”) advocates are concerned that well-meaning hunters will make a mistake and accidentally kill one of their protected animals.
As coyotes became more numerous across the state several years ago I was trying to learn something about the art of hunting these animals. While attending the well-known Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show (SHOT Show) in Las Vegas several years ago I had the opportunity to talk with Gerald Stewart, the son to the founder of the Johnny Stewart Game Calls, about coyote hunting. He kindly offered to bring some of his predator hunting expertise down to Beaufort County and teach me how to hunt coyotes.
We spent several days in the thick woods of the area trying to call in a coyote so we could kill one. It never happened. Gerald Stewart finally called the hunt off and stated “You aren’t going to have much success at hunting coyotes in this area until the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Legislature allows hunters to hunt at night. These animals are nocturnal, they’re smart and in order to get a clean shot at one you need to be able to call and bring them into your spotlight at night.”
As the years passed after Stewart’s expert advice our state has become a Mecca for coyotes and, even worse, feral hogs (domestic swine that have reverted to the wild) have invaded the state. North Carolina was experiencing a double-whammy of animals that were not wanted and were very destructing to our landscape and domestic animals.
With the new temporary rule allowing hunters to hunt feral swine and coyotes at night, with the use of lights and with the permission of the landowner on private lands, hunters now can help our Wildlife Commission to control these nuisance animals. The new night hunting rule does not go into effect without controversy however. Some landowners are worried that night hunting would encourage hunters to shoot deer at night and others are worried that coyote hunters, using lights to hunt at night, might accidentally kill one of the red wolves that we now have in eastern North Carolina.
Over some of those same years of the invasion of feral hogs and coyotes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was introducing (not re-introducing) another top predator into this scene. It was what they referred to as the “red wolf” and to many it was yet another unwanted predator. It was questionable as to whether or not the so–called red wolf ever did live in eastern North Carolina in the first place.
The red wolf was an animal that at one time roamed large areas of the Southwest and Gulf States but had become scarce over time. The surviving animals had become hybridized by inter-breeding with grey wolves and coyotes and were justifiably not even called”pure-bred” animals anymore. A committee composed of wildlife biologists selected 14 of the animals that they thought looked like what a red wolf should look like, and shipped them off to a zoo to start a captive breeding program of these hybrid animals.
From the originally proclaimed “red wolves” came the eight animals that the USFWS brought into eastern North Carolina to try and establish a breeding population of red wolves in our area. The introduction was controversial and went against the wishes of both our North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the N.C. Legislature. The introduction was to take place on the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and encompassed the five county area of Beaufort, Hyde, Tyrell, Dare and Washington Counties where the endangered wolves were to be considered to be “experimental and non-essential animals.” This status supposedly gave the citizens of the affected areas some latitude in the way the red wolves could be handled if one should be accidentally killed.
The rules were clear that if someone accidentally killed a red wolf and properly reported the taking to the USFWS that the person that killed the wolf would not have done anything wrong. It didn’t take long for this “accidental taking rule” to be put to the test.
A Hyde County landowner was hunting coyotes during daylight hours and had shot what he thought to be a coyote (considered to be a nuisance animal). Upon examination of the dead animal he found that it was wearing a collar and he suspected that it might be a red wolf. He immediately called Mike Phillips, the biologist in charge of the red wolf project, to report what he’d done. Phillips investigated the taking and told the hunter that he’d done nothing wrong, thanked him for following the letter of the law and removed the red wolf’s carcass.
Within a few weeks, however, the federal game wardens issued the hunter involved in this red wolf taking a ticket for killing a red wolf. The case was referred to the Federal Court in Elizabeth City where Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that the accused hunter had indeed followed the letter of the law and found the hunter innocent of taking a red wolf.
It is now a precedent in Federal Court that if a hunter, taking part in a legal activity, accidentally kills a red wolf, promptly reports it to the USFWS who investigates the case and finds that the killing was accidental, and then the hunter has done nothing wrong.
Licensed hunters who hunt coyotes, using spotlights, at night and with the permission of the private landowners will probably, at some time, accidentally call in a red wolf and could accidentally kill the wolf. If they properly report it, there could be problems. Even with rules in effect that have declared the red wolf to be “non-essential and experimental” the feds will investigate the killing and might charge the hunter with taking an endangered red wolf if they feel that there is the slightest chance that the hunter could have used better judgment while shooting the wolf. If that should be the case it would be up to the Federal Courts to judge guilt or innocence.
Hunters using the new night hunting rules to take coyotes should certainly use great caution to not shoot a red wolf that unfortunately looks very much like a coyote. Sometimes even the experts have problems telling a darkly colored coyote from a red wolf. Both coyotes and red wolves might or might not be wearing collars and any shots that a hunter may encounter will probably have to be taken quickly. Both animals could be wearing radio-tracking devices implanted under their skins that enable the feds to pinpoint the locations of dead or live animals. With that in mind it might be a good idea to call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and report any taking of a coyote that looks even remotely like a red wolf. Let them make the decision about what you’ve killed.
Several years ago I kept finding freshly killed deer carcasses on my land in southern Beaufort County (south side of the Pamlico River). It was in March and the hunting seasons were over. I’d found what looked like large canine footprints near the carcasses and thought that maybe red wolves might be the deer killers. After all, the red wolf’s primary food is whitetail deer.
I knew that Beaufort County was one of the affected counties to have a population of red wolves so I called the USFWS and requested that they check my land for red wolves and, if they were present there, please remove the wolves promptly as they are required to do if the landowners request it. They spent some days investigating this and wrote a letter to me stating “they found no evidence that there were red wolves on my property.” I thanked them for checking and told them that if I should now accidentally kill a red wolf on my property thinking that it was a coyote, then the red wolf wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. It was good insurance having the letter from the USFWS in hand.