Coyote hunting faces opposition in five Red Wolf recovery counties of eastern North Carolina, prompting reconsideration for lawmakers and residents alike, wildlife officials say.
“I don’t know that you could put a number on them,” said Shawn Martin, master wildlife enforcement officer currently stationed in Buncombe County for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “We get calls weekly on them just because they are everywhere, especially when you start getting toward a city like Asheville. There are coyotes running through downtown Asheville.”
According to a 2012 study taken by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, coyote populations were isolated to the prairies and grasslands of the Midwest prior to the 1800s. Only in the last couple of centuries have they migrated eastward, with the human eradication of wolves.
Fox-pen operations, Martin said, also led to the coyotes’ rapid spread. As hunters keep coyotes in runs to train their dogs for chasing foxes, these captive animals tend to escape.
“We kind of watched them naturally migrate from those areas because they breed fast,” Martin said. “They can have a couple litters a year, just like a normal dog can. So, we are covered up with them. They are state-wide.”
Martin said in the five eastern North Carolina counties where recovering Red Wolf populations reside, coyote hunting was prohibited until recently. Its legalization spurred controversy with several conservation groups such as the Red Wolf Coalition, who filed lawsuits and called for further restrictions to be placed out of concern for the dwindling wolf population, which, according to the National Wildlife Federation, now hovers around 100.
“In such remote areas of the state, open season on coyotes will result in abuse of the system, hunting privileges, homeowner’s rights and privacy, and many more topics that aren’t thought about,” said Keith Mastin, education curator for the Western North Carolina Nature Center.
It would be very easy for the average person to mistake a Red Wolf for a coyote, Mastin explained, which is one of the biggest concerns revolving around coyote hunting in these counties.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, of the 15 total Red Wolf deaths in 2014, four resulted from gunshots. The remaining nine died from accidental or otherwise legal incidents such as being struck by vehicles, management-related activities and health reasons. Two died from unknown causes.
These two species are so genetically similar that they can successfully interbreed, and in many cases have, Martin said, which poses yet another adverse threat to the recovering wolf population as genetic purity diminishes.
Partly due to conservation efforts, these five counties now require hunters to obtain coyote hunting or coyote depredation permits before taking any animals, Mastin said. Special to these counties, these restrictions do not exist in North Carolina’s other 95 counties where coyote hunting can take place, day or night, with few exceptions.
Coyote populations have rapidly spread due to a lack of natural predators and their hardy lifestyles, Martin explained. From pet cats, dogs and chickens, their varied diet renders them a nuisance to many.
Known to kill lone Red Wolves, this issue becomes more serious in the five counties that sustain wild wolves. Although bigger than coyotes and at one point a natural predator to them, Martin said, Red Wolves now in such low numbers stand no chance against coyote packs.
Bob Gale, an ecologist and public land director for Mountain True, related coyote populations in North Carolina back to the recent issue of logging and how forest services are considering it as a way to restore certain species such as deer, grouse and wild turkey that forage in early growth forests. Coyotes may be inhibiting these species that with lack of foraging habitat — possibly caused by less logging — already show signs of decreased population.
“So, where this relates to this coyote issue is that – this argument has been going on and it’s a big deal right now in the forest plan revision. Our organization has some members in rural counties, and I was chatting with one of them during a forest service meeting we went to – him and a couple other hunters,” Gale said. “He’d lived here all his life, and he took great exception to that need for more early successional habitat. He said, ‘What I’ve observed, I’m a hunter and I have hunted grouse, is that as the coyotes have increased, the grouse have gone down.’ He said he was totally convinced that coyotes have had a big impact on grouse.”
Even as coyotes may pose threats to other species because of their numbers, Mastin explained, they provide an important predator niche in the habitats they populate and can be exploited like any other natural resource.This cannot be overlooked.
“The issue of hunting is big,” Mastin said. “But the issue of population control is even bigger.”