The day after Christmas 1997 is a day that Liz Kehr shudders to remember.
Kehr and her husband,
Kevin Feist, live in the Flathead Valley in northwestern Montana,
snug against Glacier National Park. It's a place where publicly
owned land stretches for miles in all directions, though in the
past 10 years the valley has boomed with more and more people
moving in. Flathead County swelled from 59,218 people in 1990, to
an estimated 71,707 in 1997.
It's an outdoor
community where many people enjoy hunting and fishing,
cross-country skiing, snowmobiling - and
Kehr chokes up when she recalls Dec.
26, 1997, an overcast day with snow threatening and everything
washed in the gray of a northwestern Montana winter. Kehr was out
for a little afternoon skiing, a chance to burn off some holiday
sloth and exercise her two dogs. She chose the Trail Creek road,
which is often impassable to even four-wheel drive vehicles but
still sees heavy use from snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.
Near Kalispell, the road is on public land - the Flathead National
With her were Tara and Buddy, the
family's two mutts. A year before, Buddy, a good-natured dog with a
seemingly perpetual grin, had come to Kevin and Liz's house, a
stray looking for a home.
was like he picked us," remembers Kehr.
Buddy was part of the family. Leaving her car parked beside a few
others, Kehr moved up the road, following the ruts made by other
skiers and enjoying the rhythmic squeak of the snow beneath her
skis. Two miles up the trail, Buddy peeled off to investigate some
smells. He had moved just out of sight behind a snow berm, less
than 50 feet from Kehr, when "there was this horrible screaming
sound," she says. "It was Buddy, and he had this thing around his
neck. I didn't even know what it was."
had come across some raw chicken parts in a white bucket. At the
mouth of the bucket was a Conibear 220, a steel trap designed
primarily to catch and kill beaver, otter and raccoon. Buddy had
gone for the chicken and gotten the trap.
new, a Conibear 220 exerts an impressive 90 pounds of pressure per
square inch. It can break a human hand, and it is designed to
quickly kill whatever it catches. It is among a family of so-called
humane traps that dispatch an animal rather than hold it by a foot
It also requires some knowledge to use.
Springs line the sides of the trap and must be squeezed in order to
release or unspring the trap. It usually takes a strong person
using both hands to squeeze each spring. If you know how to open
it, you have between three and eight minutes to save an animal from
This was the contraption that Kehr
was faced with, a trap she had never seen or even heard of. A
high-pitched scream came from Buddy as the Conibear clamped around
his throat. Her other dog barked frantically, running in circles.
Kehr wrenched off her skis and threw aside her ski poles, screaming
for help. She struggled to figure out how to release Buddy as the
dog thrashed in pain. Kehr is a small woman, barely five foot
"I was just pouring
sweat, trying to figure this thing out," remembers Kehr, her voice
trembling. "Then I finally figured out how to release it and I
couldn't. I didn't have enough strength. I worked and worked on it
and I moved it, but it only made it worse for Buddy. Cut off more
air. Which was probably good. He was really suffering."
She squeezed the springs to no avail and called
for help for what seemed like a long time. Finally, Buddy's howls
of pain quieted, though Kehr still tried to free him. "I heard
voices and Bob and Laurie showed up."
Laurie Muth were neighbors out for an afternoon ski. Bob helped pry
Buddy out of the trap. "But he was gone," says
"I've never seen
anything as traumatic as this girl trying to raise the dog from the
trap," Bob Muth later told a local newspaper.
The state of modern trapping
Say the word "trapper" to most and you are likely to conjure up
Jack London-esque images of hardy souls donning snowshoes and
tramping off into the Arctic wastelands. Or perhaps one thinks of
Charlton Heston and Brian Keith in the film The Mountain Men, or of
one of Terry C. Johnston's novels set in the early 1800s
fur-trapping era. But today's trapper lives in a different world,
co-existing with house pets, backcountry recreationists,
suburbanites and ranchers.
Each year, more than
250,000 trappers take furbearing wildlife from the nation's private
and public lands. In years when furs bring premium prices, the
number of trappers swells to perhaps 750,000 nationwide. Montana
claims 2,600 trappers, who trap beaver, muskrat, bobcat, coyote,
fox, pine marten, raccoon and other animals.
According to statistics from the National Trappers Association, an
Illinois-based group with a paid membership of 12,500 nationwide,
the average trapper is a 37-year-old man, a high school-educated
blue-collar worker who is under-employed in the winter and sells
fur to supplement his income.
skill. Successful trappers learn animal habits and habitat. They
learn how to read tracks and droppings and other animal sign. They
also learn how to skin their catch and treat furs for later
In the West, traps are of three basic
types: leghold traps, which grab an animal by the foot or leg,
leaving the animal alive until killed by the trapper; Conibear and
other killer traps that typically crush or strangle the catch; and
snares of the neck or foot variety. Coyotes or foxes caught in neck
snares frequently strangle as they fight the constricting
Less frequently used are the box or live
traps that capture an animal unharmed.
Trapping's roots are deep in the history of this continent. In the
1790s, before the Lewis and Clark expedition, trappers pursued
beaver along the Missouri River. Trappers and traders held their
first rendezvous in 1825, an event modern "mountain men" now
re-enact in towns all over the West.
trapping, however, has come under increasing attack from several
directions. Spurred by incidents such as the death of Buddy,
animal-rights groups have won major victories at election booths
around the country in the past decade.
three states, Massachusetts, Colorado and California, have banned
the recreational and commercial use of all leg-hold, body-gripping
and snare traps. Arizona bans such trapping on public lands but
allows it on private land. Where trapping is legal, the activity is
typically regulated by that state's department of wildlife.
Each year, 50 percent of all trappers are
beginners. "That's something we're concerned about, how to educate
the beginner who just gets into trapping," says Tom Krause, editor
of American Trapper magazine and programs manager for the National
Trappers Association. Many trappers, especially beginners, lose
interest for reasons that can range from lack of profit to changing
typically rural people who are not inclined to join things. We work
hard to find these people and help them learn more about how to
trap right. It's an incredible challenge."
Krause says it is often the inexperienced trapper who causes
problems for all trappers. "But it's important to point out that
trapping is a regulated activity. There are laws that trappers have
Some say those laws aren't good
Wrong trap, wrong
bait, wrong place
In the aftermath of Buddy's
death, Liz Kehr was shocked to find that another dog had been
caught in a Conibear trap on the same trapline only six days
earlier. That dog, a hefty yellow Labrador retriever, had been
quickly released by its owner, who told the local game warden about
the incident; the warden contacted the trapper.
Yet the traps remained in place, only a few feet from the road.
Though the traps posed a danger, the trapper's failure to place
them away from areas of heavy human activity was legal under
That traps such as Conibears could
be legally set near a well-traveled public road shocked Kehr and
her friends. So she, her husband, Kevin Feist, Bob Muth and a few
others formed a group they called The Friends of
"We got together and
held a meeting and decided we wanted to do something to have
responsible trapping," says Kehr.
But when the
group called for changes in Montana trapping regulations, the
trapper said they were blaming the wrong
"This animal died
because of its owner's stupidity," Bill Hawk, the trapper who set
the trap, told The Daily Inter Lake. The dog should have been on a
leash, he added, and he pointed out that he had been a trapper
since the 1960s and had trapped for five years in the area where
Letters to the editor ran in local
papers for months after the dog died. A billboard sponsored by the
Montana Trappers Association, which read "We Montanans reject
animal activists," was vandalized with black paint. Kehr and her
husband received obscene phone calls accusing them of being
animal-rights activists and "damn newcomers' - even though both
have lived in Montana for more than a decade, and Feist is an avid
The Friends of Buddy maintained they
were not trying to ban trapping. They just wanted changes in the
way it was done. Even to a casual observer, they argued, the
actions of trapper Bill Hawk were hard to
Hawk claimed to be using the trap for
pine marten, a small, almost catlike mammal found in forests around
the West. But seasoned trappers like Krause and others say a
Conibear 220 is a beaver trap or a raccoon trap, too big for
marten. Moreover, 220s are typically set in or under water for
beaver. They are not used with bait to entice an animal, but rather
are placed along the path where a raccoon or beaver might pass.
Hawk had placed his trap, baited with chicken, less than a dozen
paces from the middle of a popular public
"My reaction is that
this trapper was either inexperienced, unethical or ignorant," says
Krause, who has an estimated 44 years of trapping experience. Each
year, he takes 50-60 pine martens in the Bridger Teton and Shoshone
national forests near his home in Riverton,
"It was the wrong trap,
wrong bait, wrong place," he says.
are typically trapped with a Conibear 120 - a much smaller trap
than a 220 - in old-growth forest far from development. Krause says
he's invented a system of trapping marten that avoids catching
dogs, magpies, jays and scavenging raptors. He sets traps in an
18x8-inch box with the trap at the entrance and bait inside the
box. Perhaps most importantly, this system is intended to be used
in remote locations.
catch marten 50 miles from town," says Krause.
The need for change
summer, the Friends of Buddy petitioned the Montana Fish, Wildlife
and Parks Commission to change the way trappers operate. They asked
* mandatory posting of traplines on public
* banning traps on heavily used public
* mandatory 24-hour trap checks;
* the licensing of all trappers. Under
current Montana law, resident trappers going after coyotes,
weasels, skunks and spotted skunks don't have to buy a
"We got shot down
pretty bad," says Kevin Feist of his group's first meeting with the
commission in June 1998. However, the state extended the comment
period on trapping regulations until August 1998. That was the
opportunity that the Friends of Buddy were waiting
They launched a letter-writing campaign to
encourage people to comment. After the results were tallied,
letters in favor of changing trapping regulations outweighed
letters against by eight to one - 88 to 11.
the other side of the issue, the Montana Trappers Association sent
a petition with 2,984 signatures asking to maintain the current
regulations. Friends of Buddy countered with 1,019 names on a
petition of their own.
After debate on the
issue, the commission voted to make several changes, including
prohibiting trapping on the rights of way of publicly maintained
roads. They also adopted a law requiring Conibears to have a
recessed trigger, which theoretically would cut down on non-target
catches, and to be set back "50 yards from the approximate
centerline of public roads."
The group felt
only partially satisfied, though Feist managed to get appointed to
a trapping advisory committee that included trappers, wildlife
watchers, bird hunters, pet owners, skiers and
"We've gotten along
surprisingly well," says Feist.
The task force
voted to make several recommendations to the commission, including
keeping traps 1,000 feet away from dwellings, but members could not
agree to shorten the 48-hour suggested trap check to the 24 hours
that the Friends of Buddy wanted. Nor did the group agree to
recommend that trappers post signs warning, "Trapping in this
disappointing," says Feist, "but there were some good things that
came up, too."
The professional trapper
representative on the group suggested two changes that will be
recommended to the commission. One was for off-set jaws on leghold
traps, a modification with a small spacer of one-quarter to
three-sixteenths of an inch, so the jaws of the trap don't snap
tightly together, and do less damage to an animal's
"This really makes a
difference with raptors," says Feist. "If that foot is squeezed in
the jaws for only a day, the blood supply to the foot is cut off,
and even if the hawk or owl or eagle is released, it would probably
lose that foot. Have you ever seen a one-legged raptor? I never
have. They probably die because they need both feet."
The other suggestion was for break-away snares,
which snap under the pressure imparted by a large animal like an
elk or a deer. The idea is that coyotes can't struggle out of such
a trap, while deer can break free.
occasionally get caught in snares. Sometimes they can be released,
but sometimes they have to be dispatched because of their injuries.
Or, they die. Montana game wardens have documented several cases of
deer, cattle, and even moose being killed in snares set for coyote
From a trapper's point of view, says
Krause, many of the recommendations by the Friends of Buddy just
Posting warning signs will
just provoke vandalism, he maintains. "It encourages people to
steal traps and encourages mischief." And since furbearer densities
are fairly low in states such as Montana or Wyoming, where Krause
traps, a trap check more often than 48 hours doesn't make sense, he
"Your traplines are
spread out over a large area and it's just not practical to check
traps every day," says Krause, who traps in Wyoming, where a trap
check is required every 72 hours.
Lucas, a Lander, Wyo., trapper (see sidebar), notes that fairly
frequent trap checks are a necessity for the trapper who wants a
"The longer you
leave it out there, the more chance there is for the pelt to be
damaged (by other animals, humans or by the captured animal as it
struggles in the trap), and that's just not good business."
Unethical trappers get a lot of
attention. Animal-rights groups are quick to point out the cruelty
of traps and often they have plenty of community newspaper accounts
for ammunition: a golden retriever, which had been trying to drink
from a pond, found with a Conibear snapped around its head on a
national wildlife refuge in North Dakota (the dog later died at a
veterinary hospital); a Dachshund killed by a Conibear while its
owner was walking it on a leash; a Labrador retriever puppy in
Montana caught in a Conibear in such apparent pain that its teenage
owner slit its throat with a knife to end its suffering (the pup
miraculously lived); and, of course, the incident with Buddy.
"All trappers have to suffer
when one does something like this. But let's put this in
perspective," says Krause. "It's a regrettable incident, but a rare
one. Nobody says anything when dogs are killed on the road. It's a
sad thing (the death of Buddy), but there were probably 1,000 dogs
that died on highways that same day."
says Krause, is a necessary activity that groups like his are
working to make more "efficient, humane and practicable. The need
for trapping will continue into the future."
The fight to ban it all
is there a "need to trap'? No, say a half-dozen animal-rights
groups around the country.
"We're not going to rest
until body-gripping traps are banned from all of the states," says
Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Humane
Society of the United States. With 6.7 million members, the Humane
Society is the largest animal protection group in the
"There's this stubborn
attitude among trappers that "By God, this is my lifestyle, and I'm
not going to change," "''''says Pacelle. "Trappers have been
coddled by the state agencies for so long, and the state agencies
have been controlled by hunters and trappers for so long, that
trappers haven't been held accountable until recent years."
It is in the 1990s that animal-rights groups
have made significant inroads in the fight to ban commercial and
recreational trapping. In 1992, voters in Arizona were asked to
vote on Proposition 200, which proposed a ban on leghold, instant
kill, and snare traps on public lands. That measure was rejected,
only to reappear in 1994 as Proposition 201. It
In 1996, voters in Colorado and
Massachusetts approved similar laws that included both public and
This spring, state lawmakers in
Oregon are debating Senate Bill 599, which would prohibit the
trapping of wildlife for recreation or commerce. Trapping is on its
way out, maintains
"We're taking it to
the next tier," he says, noting that states such as Nevada,
Washington and Maine could pass similar laws in the coming years.
The Fund for Animals, a New York-based animal
protection group with 200,000 members, is working on federal
legislation to ban traps. Says Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain
coordinator for the group, "There's no place for trapping in a
The National Trappers
Association, though, promises a fight. "We're picking our courts
and picking our judges as much as we can," says Krause. "I can't
tell you our strategy, but we're confident."
Krause points to a recent county court decision in Arizona, where
two trappers were arrested for trapping on public lands in Yavapai
County. A judge there dismissed the charges because he found the
ban unconstitutional under Arizona law, says
"The battle has begun
with a very satisfying result to those who have very definitely
been discriminated against on their own public lands," wrote Krause
in a recent editorial in American Trapper.
some cases, trappers have discovered uncommon allies. In
California, the Marin Audubon Society filed a lawsuit to allow the
trapping of non-native red fox, which the group said were
threatening populations of endangered species (HCN, 2/1/99). The
Humane Society recently settled that lawsuit, meaning red fox can
now be taken with traps.
was basically a difference in interpretation of the measure," says
Pacelle. "We've been advocates of endangered species protection
since the very beginning. We believed from the start that the
federal endangered species act trumps any state act and the law
would allow trapping of fox. So we agreed to settle to make it
clear that they can use whatever traps are necessary (to control
fox populations)." Pacelle adds that it's ironic that the red fox
in that region aren't native; they're descendants of escapees from
fur farms decades earlier.
themselves will help to overturn bans on trapping, says Krause. He
points to swelling beaver populations in Massachusetts and growing
coyote numbers in Colorado as evidence. Indeed, commissioners in
Baca County in southeastern Colorado recently reinstated a
decades-old bounty system on coyotes. Starting in January, coyote
hunters are paid $7.50 per set of coyote ears. The county allocated
$7,500 for the bounty program, enough to pay for 1,000
Pacelle agrees trapping has some use.
"People run into conflict with wildlife in every state," he says,
"(and) the measures allow for the taking of individual problem
California allows livestock owners to
use neck snares to control coyotes that are attacking domestic
animals. Colorado allows Conibears, leghold traps and snares for
the same reason.
against trapping per se, but we are against commercial and
recreational trapping, particularly the body-gripping traps," says
Pacelle. "The level of trapping today is not going to check the
growth of any particular abundant species, whether it's beaver or
The Bozeman, Mont.-based Predator
Project says trapping today imperils rarer species such as lynx,
wolverine and fisher.
The nonprofit Predator
Project says the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services
branch, which each year kills thousands of predators to protect
agricultural interests, is a menace.
Services, formerly known as Animal Damage Control, used leghold and
neck snares on approximately 26 percent of all its kills in fiscal
1997, according to a report recently released by the Predator
Project. Coyotes topped the list of predators killed by federal
agents, followed by foxes and bobcats.
Meanwhile, trapping bans are on a roll, says Pacelle. "The trapping
community really has no compelling argument to continue
(recreational and commercial trapping). There's too few trappers to
say it's a wildlife management issue. They would argue individual
liberties, and I don't deny that it's a very meaningful activity to
them," Pacelle continues. "But we've also passed very specific laws
banning cruelty to animals, and trapping falls under this. Values
change. We're not a purely libertarian society."
The Buddy campaign
The Friends of Buddy will continue to
fight for change in Montana's trapping laws, says Liz Kehr. At the
top of their list will be a 24-hour trap check, but they will look
at other issues as well, she says.
Buddy's death, Kehr decided to volunteer her time at the local
animal shelter. She started walking dogs there each
She says she doesn't feel comfortable
out alone anymore, especially during the winter. "I'm always on the
lookout for traps and I never totally relax."
few weeks into her volunteer work, she fell for another dog, a
large mixed breed she has dubbed Cody. But whenever Kehr goes
skiing these days, she leaves both dogs at home.
"I keep thinking about how I
(first) found Buddy on that same road near our house," remembers
Kehr. "It was like he came to me for comfort and a home. And I
remember how he died, how he was looking to me for help. And I
couldn't help him."
Reed writes about the West from Lander, Wyoming.
You can contact ...
National Trappers Association, P.O. Box 3667 Bloomington, IL 61702;
Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. NW. Washington, DC
20037; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.hsus.org
Fund For Animals 200 West 57th Street New York, N. 10019;
Project P.O. Box 6733 Bozeman, MT 59771; email@example.com;