North Carolina boasts the world’s only wild population of endangered red wolves. That population shouldn’t become collateral damage to those thinning packs of pesky coyotes in the five northeastern counties where the red wolves live.

The Southern Environmental Center, representing wolf advocacy groups, is trying to stop that from happening with a suit that seeks to block the state Wildlife Resources Commission’s decision to allow coyote hunting in those coastal counties.

We realize that coyotes, which sometimes prey on livestock, have to be controlled.

But red wolves, which were re-introduced to the North Carolina wild in 1987, have to be protected.

The problem is that red wolves and coyotes have similar features and are easily confused, The Associated Press reported last week. Adding to the confusion: The animals sometimes interbreed, producing hybrids. Since the lawsuit was filed in October, at least seven red wolves out of the state’s population of about 100 have been fatally shot. As attorney Sierra Weaver of the Southern Environmental Center said, by allowing hunting of the coyotes, “The state is authorizing an activity that inherently causes risk to an endangered species.”

State attorneys counter that a court order blocking coyote hunting until U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle holds a trial would hurt landowners that hunt coyotes to limit the population of a predator that wildlife officials believe are growing, the AP reported.

But a state wildlife official acknowledged to Boyle that state regulators lack firm data on whether coyotes are multiplying and where. And Weaver contended that the state’s approval of coyote hunting undercuts the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan for preventing red wolves from vanishing through cross-breeding. That plan includes capturing, sterilizing and releasing coyotes to red wolf territory, where the sterilized coyotes claim territory and defend it from new coyotes that would move into the red wolf’s range and breed with them.

This is a complex issue. But one thing seems certain: In the five counties in question, the state should ban coyote hunting until it establishes firm figures on the numbers of those animals, and establishes whether its plan to prevent cross-breeding and protect the endangered red wolves is working.

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