On May 7, 2014, a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina enjoined (pdf) coyote hunting in five North Carolina counties that provide a recovery area for the red wolf (Canis rufus), a species listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In Red Wolf Coalition v. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, No. 2:13-CV-60-BO (N.D.N.C. May 7, 2014), plaintiffs sought to enjoin the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (Commission) from issuing permits for coyote hunting in an area spanning 1.7 million acres. The land serves as a recovery area for the red wolf, a species that was once thought to be extinct in the wild and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced in 1987. Current population estimates put the number of red wolves at between 90 and 110 in the wild.

Plaintiffs claimed that the Commission’s issuance of permits for coyote hunting causes the unlawful take of red wolves in violation of section 9 of the ESA. Plaintiffs alleged that by issuing coyote hunting permits, the Commission significantly increases the likelihood of red wolf deaths due to gunshot wounds, of which there were nine in 2013, because coyotes and red wolves look quite similar. Plaintiffs also asserted that coyote hunting causes harm and harassment to red wolves through the disruption of breeding. The court agreed with the plaintiffs, noting that “[e]ven experts have difficulty distinguishing between coyotes and red wolves when observing them in the field,” and preliminarily enjoined the Commission from authorizing coyote hunting in the red wolf recovery area.

Notably, the court dismissed the claim against the Commission, a state agency, under the Eleventh Amendment, which bars suits against non-consenting states by private individuals in federal court. The court upheld the claims against the Commission’s individual commissioners, however, and issued the injunction based on those claims. The court also rejected the Commission’s argument that red wolves in the North Carolina recovery area should be afforded fewer protections than other species listed under the ESA because they are classified as a “non-essential experimental population,” reasoning that such a distinction would “put the rights of hunters and private landowners above Congress’ clear mandate to prevent the extinction of the red wolf and reintroduce the species to the wild.”

The court will reconsider the preliminary injunction in 180 days.