A shorter version of this story was published in the Charlotte Observer Sci-Tech pages on April 9, 2012. If you would like to submit comments to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission about their proposal to allow the nighttime hunting of coyotes then please visit this page and click the online form link for proposal W1. The comment period is open until April 16, 2012.
Since 1993 it’s been legal to shoot coyotes during daylight hours throughout North Carolina, but a new rule proposed by the Wildlife Resources Commission would expand statewide coyote hunting opportunities to include nighttime. The new rule would allow the use of artificial lights to blind coyotes after dark where hunting is currently legal. There would be no season, no bag limit, and no permit required.
Opponents to the rule say it unnecessarily places federally-listed red wolves at risk of being shot by mistake because they appear physically similar to coyotes. Red wolves range in weight from 55 -75 pounds while coyotes are usually 35 to 40 pounds, according to the Red Wolf Recovery Program Coordinator David Rabon.
“We have suffered a number of problems during daylight hours with mistaken identity, and hunting at night is only going to add to that,” Rabon said. 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. Red wolves are most active at night.
Because coyotes and red wolves will hybridize under certain conditions, the Fish and Wildlife Service has sterilized coyotes in the five-county red wolf recovery area since about 2000 to prevent interspecies breeding. 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. Rabon fears the rule change would harm his program’s hybridization management if sterilized coyotes are shot, and he questions what WRC is trying to achieve in terms of wildlife management.
Goals behind the rule
Different WRC biologists have offered different interpretations for the management goals behind the proposed rule. Perry Sumner, a biologist in the 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.
There are some coyote issues in rural areas with livestock, he said, but 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.
Sumner confirmed that the state has not conducted surveys to determine how many coyotes are present or how they are distributed, a process that would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming. He also said 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, contradicted this statement at a public hearing in Asheville on March 21. Cobb stated that a third goal was to “control coyote populations.”
“By not giving a firm reason for the change, it allows their arguments to be flexible,” Rabon said. “Our concern at this point is what effect it could have on red wolves as well as other wildlife and public safety.”
Effect on red wolves
Last year, the first scientific paper to examine the effects of human-caused killings of red wolves — including being shot in cases of mistaken identity, hit by vehicles, and poached — was published in the science journal PLoS One. The study tested two ecological theories and was led by Dennis Murray of Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. One theory proposed that human-caused killings have an “additive” effect which reduces a population’s overall survival rates. The second theory 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 times, 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.
A second study took the form of a dissertation under the tutelage of Lisette Waits, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Idaho. Waits and her then-student, Justin Bohling, examined factors that were correlated with red wolves hybridizing. “A high proportion of these hybridization events were occurring after the disruption of a pack,” Waits said. “Particularly, it’s been a problem associated with gunshot mortality during the hunting season, and the hunting season precedes the breeding season.”
More than half of the pack disruptions they studied were caused by human actions, with gunshot mortality topping the list.
Effect on coyotes
Another 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. Postdoctoral researcher Jonathan Way is working with center director Robert Crabtree to learn 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 show that coyotes in areas of persecution have higher rates of pup survival, possibly due to a greater availability of resources compared to un-persecuted areas, although their litters tend to be the same size. This 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.”
Roland Kays, a coyote researcher and director of the Nature Research Center 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 added that an abundance of food likely influences their population growth more so than hunting.
Way did not mince words about the proposal. “To allow hunting of one species that is so similar looking to a second species that is fully endangered is just bizarre,” he said.
Kim Wheeler, executive director of the not-for-profit Red Wolf Coalition said coyotes fill an ecological niche here that would likely not be open had the red wolf not been previously exterminated. Coyotes eat rabbits, rodents, nutria, beaver, groundhogs and other small mammals, some of which many people consider pests. Wheeler advocates teaching coexistence instead of trying to “shoot them away.”
“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.”
Michael Stoskopf: NCSU professor in College of Veterinary Medicine and chair of Red Wolf Recovery Implementation Team
Perry Sumner: Wildlife Resources Commission section manager for surveys and research, and wildlife diversity manager
Roland Kays: Biodiversity Lab Director, Nature Research Center, Museum of Natual Science
Kim Wheeler: Executive Director of the Red Wolf Coalition
David Rabon: Red Wolf Program Coordinator
Jonathan Way: Yellowstone Ecological Research Center postdoctoral researcher
Lisette Waits: University of Idaho, Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources
David Cobb, Wildlife Management Division Chief at WRC