By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C., Dec 17 (Reuters) - Conservation groups have asked a U.S. judge to halt coyote hunting in eastern North Carolina, where the endangered wild red wolves roam, arguing that the wolves, which resemble coyotes, are being killed by mistake.
The move was part of a lawsuit against the state's Wildlife Resources Commission, which authorized coyote hunting within a five-county area that is home to about 100 red wolves.
The groups argue that the hunting further threatens the wolves, which are among the world's most endangered animals. Once common in the southeastern United States, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, after a loss of habitat and intensive predator control programs.
After a successful zoo-based breeding program in an effort to restore their population, the wolves were released back into the wild in North Carolina.
At least five red wolves, whose coats and coloring are similar to coyotes, have been shot and killed in the state since October, according to wildlife officials.
It is illegal to kill these wolves, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, and a reward of up to $26,000 has been offered as part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation into the recent deaths.
"Mistaken identity results in red wolves getting shot," said Sierra Weaver, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
"Ending coyote hunting would be the cleanest, easiest way," to avoid those killings, she said.
The law center is seeking to block coyote hunting on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Welfare Institute.
The Wildlife Resources Commission said allowing landowners to trap and hunt coyotes provided an effective way to manage the population of the non-native species. Coyotes pose a threat to pets and livestock and are potential disease carriers, state officials said.
The commission opposes the effort to stop coyote hunting, and Executive Director Gordon Myers called the conservation groups' lawsuit "misguided."
"The established coyote hunting regulations are in the best interest of the public, the environment and the agricultural community, and do so without any violations of the Endangered Species Act," Myers said on Tuesday.
The red wolf is one of two species of wolves in North America and has been considered endangered since 1967. In addition to the red wolves living on 1.7 million acres in North Carolina, nearly 200 red wolves are housed in captive breeding facilities across the country as part of the recovery effort. (Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)