This year alone, about 10 percent of the country's red wolves have died from confirmed or suspected gunshot wounds.
Although the animals are listed as critically endangered, nine of the 100 remaining red wolves living in the wild have been killed in this manner, a recent release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes.
Environmental groups suspect some of the wolves may have been mistaken for coyotes by hunters. The North Carolina legislature recently allowed coyote hunting in the vast Red Wolf Recovery Area in eastern North Carolina, according to multiple sources. Eastern North Carolina is where all of the U.S.'s remaining wild red wolves live, and permissive coyote-hunting laws have led to red wolf deaths in the past.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Coordinator David Rabon told The Washington Post there's no guarantee the remaining wolves will all breed together.
“When we lose an animal, that obviously has an impact on a very small population,” Rabon told the outlet, adding that only “about 13 pairs are breeding."
Red wolves, which are slightly smaller than gray wolves and are marked by their distinctive auburn-tinged fur, were once a common site in the Southeast, but the animals were nearly wiped out in the early 1900s, partly due to habitat loss, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group has made significant efforts to repopulate the species after it was declared endangered in 1973.
Killing red wolves is illegal and punishable by a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Anyone with information about the killing of the nine red wolves is eligible to receive a $26,000 reward.
An adult red wolf caring for a pup. (photo: Greg Koch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)