Carol Buchanan raises chickens on her small farm in rural western Colorado, and the mounted heads of deer, bear and elk hang from the walls of her house. But on her desk lie copies of a petition which aims to ban all trapping, snaring and poisoning of animals in the state.
"I'm not against hunting,"
says the 45-year-old Buchanan, who lives in Norwood, near
Telluride. "I eat meat, and I've lost some chickens to predators."
A volunteer with People Allied With Wildlife (PAWW), a group formed
last winter, she adds, "I just don't agree with the inhumane,
unethical, cruel treatment of wildlife."
past six months, Buchanan has hit the state's small towns, hoping
to gather enough signatures to push the PAWW initiative onto the
November ballot. Her pitch to residents is part moral indignation,
part practicality: "Traps are a poor way to control predators," she
tells people. "For every one you catch, you get two other animals
you didn't intend to. "
At Buchanan's insistence,
the ballot initiative includes a provision that would allow private
landowners to use traps for 30 days out of the year, but only if
they can show that other methods of control - from shooting to the
employment of llamas as sheep guardians - have
That's not much of a concession,
according to Mike Harper, a sheep rancher from Ault, north of
Greeley on Colorado's Front Range.
guard dogs, but we've had a predator problem and to take care of
it, we've hired a trapper," says Harper. His Harper Livestock Co.
runs a feedlot for up to 50,000 sheep at a time in the spring. "I
understand the environmental concerns - there's a large ecosystem
out there and we need to take care of it. But the animals we're
taking with traps are a very small number of those out there."
Harper and Buchanan are in a race this summer.
If Buchanan and the other 1,200 PAWW volunteers collected 54,000
valid signatures by July 17 - the group says it surpassed that
number, but the official results likely won't be announced until
early August - they will get a chance to test the public's will on
the issue. The numbers seem to be on their side: A 1994 poll
conducted by researchers at Colorado State University found that 61
percent of those polled would like to see trapping abolished
Harper, meanwhile, is participating in
a predator-control roundtable organized by Colorado Agriculture
Commissioner Tom Kourlis. Kourlis has brought together a group of
ranchers, sportsmen, trappers and environmentalists - but not
animal rights advocates - to come up with new rules to control
predators, including coyotes, foxes, bobcats, bears, mountain
lions, wolves, beavers, muskrats, raccoons, opossums and striped
As the face-off between the ballot
initiative and Kourlis' regulations draws near, some observers
lament that what started out two years ago as a venture in
cooperation has returned to the polarized debate of
"It's devolved into a power struggle," says
Karen Wharton, who chairs the Sierra Club's wildlife committee.
"The agricultural community isn't willing to compromise, and
neither are the animal rights groups."
A battle between
Kourlis' roundtable is the Department of
Agriculture's first attempt in recent history to formulate
regulations for predators, though it has long had the legal
authority to do so.
For years the biologists and
wildlife managers of the Division of Wildlife have set regulations
for trapping and controlling problem predators. And for years the
ranchers, farmers and trappers had no reason to quarrel. The
seasons set were long, and there were few restrictions on what
devices trappers could use to kill predators: Everything from
steel-jaw traps to lethal snares were
But the age of laissez-faire management
began to change in the early 1990s. First came a successful 1992
ballot initiative campaign limiting bear hunting. Then, under
pressure from environmentalists, the DOW shortened the season for
mountain lion hunting in 1994, from nine months to six
Recognizing that public opinion regarding
predators had changed - and that an anti-trapping initiative might
be in the works - two years ago the DOW initiated its own
stakeholder process to come up with new regulations for furbearers
and predatory animals. It opened the process to anyone who wanted
to participate, including animal rights advocates like Buchanan and
representatives from the Department of
The stakeholders could not arrive at
a consensus, but a middle ground emerged. In the fall of 1995, the
wildlife commission, which oversees the Division of Wildlife,
approved new rules based largely on the stakeholders'
recommendations. The rules were a radical departure from business
as usual: They shortened the recreational trapping season, reduced
the number of species that could be trapped from 16 to eight and
restricted the use of certain traps deemed by some to be inhumane
The commission also included a
new season on coyotes, a species traditionally hunted year-round.
Though the season did not restrict ranchers from killing coyotes
that threaten livestock, it set off howls from farmers, ranchers
and hunters accustomed to shooting coyotes on
"It's not like we have a threatened coyote
population," says Sandy Snider, a sheep rancher and executive
director of the Colorado Woolgrowers Association. Coyotes took more
than 16,000 head of sheep worth $1.18 million in 1995, according to
the association's tally. "They made a snap decision. They were
trying to placate the public instead of really listening to the
agricultural community," Snider says.
ranchers and farmers found a listening ear in Agriculture
Commissioner Kourlis and the members of the Senate and House
Agriculture committees in the state Legislature. Together, they
drafted and passed a bill which gives the agriculture commissioner
"exclusive jurisdiction ... over the control of depredating
animals." Senate Bill 167 worked its way through the legislative
process in the winter of 1996 and was signed into law in April by
Democratic Gov. Roy Romer.
environmentalists who participated in the Division of Wildlife
roundtable, the passage of SB 167 was a betrayal.
"The DOW bent over backwards to do a very public
process," says Sierra Club wildlife activist Mike Smith, who
participated in the stakeholders' group for seven months. "The new
regulations weren't even given a chance to work."
Even the editor of American Trapper magazine
questioned whether the Department of Agriculture had the expertise
to manage wildlife.
"Do you suppose this
unprecedented political move was intended to encourage citizens to
sign and support the ballot effort to stop trapping in Colorado
altogether," wrote editor Tom Krause.
critics say SB 167 gives the Agriculture Commissioner carte blanche
to kill wildlife, Kourlis maintains the law actually narrows his
authority over wildlife. Before SB 167, it could claim it had the
broad power to control populations of all predators. The new law,
he says, narrows agriculture's authority to just a dozen species,
and then only when they are damaging livestock. The bill also
includes protections for "at risk" species to be identified by the
Division of Wildlife. "Environmentalists don't understand the
statute," says Kourlis.
"If the law didn't give
the agriculture commissioner exclusive control over depredating
wildlife, his argument might make some sense," responds Smith, who
led the 1992 campaign against the spring bear hunt. He says that
under the bill, the commissioner could approve springtime black
bear hunts to kill livestock-threatening bears, overriding
There is other troubling language,
Smith says. The bill defines a depredating animal as one that
threatens to damage "agricultural products or resources."
"Does that mean that if a coyote urinates on
your John Deere you can go after it?" asks
"SB 167 was a naked grab for power," says
Michael Robinson of Sinapu, a Boulder-based environmental group
dedicated to protecting biological diversity in the state. "Kourlis
wanted to sidestep the environmental constituencies."
Playing it both
If Kourlis wanted to elude the
environmentalists, he didn't entirely
Though environmentalists didn't convince
Gov. Romer to veto SB 167, they did persuade him to direct Kourlis
to go through a public rulemaking process. The Sierra Club, Sinapu,
the Audubon Society and the Colorado Environmental Coalition
accepted the governor's invitation to participate in Kourlis'
But in early July, after several work
sessions, all but the Audubon Society dropped out, claiming Kourlis
had short-shrifted scientific information and ignored
Mike Smith says a
vote allowing the use of traps and snares right next to a carcass
convinced him to quit. Current rules outlawed traps within 30 feet
of a carcass to prevent the inadvertent capture of eagles and
hawks. But, the recommendation - made by a private trapper - passed
handily, Smith says, against the advice of state and federal
"The Department of Agriculture's own
trapper said, "We don't do this," " Smith says, "but, by God, they
voted for it anyway."
"I'm torn and miserable,"
says Linda Tipton of the Boulder County Audubon Society, now the
lone environmental representative at the table. "But if I'm not
here, the agricultural interests would ram through rules in a few
hours. And those rules would allow the use of the worst trapping
devices with the longest check times." A check time is the period
of time - currently 48 hours - a trapper can leave a trap
The looming showdown at the ballot
box has made pulling out of the roundtable easier for
environmentalists. All four groups have endorsed the anti-trapping
initiative, a stand some admit they would not have taken had SB 167
not become law. Some observers say their endorsement may push the
initiative onto the ballot and give it a better shot at
For trappers and the ranchers they
serve, Kourlis' roundtable offers a chance to regain some of the
freedom they lost under the DOW regulations. But they know that
Kourlis must walk a fine line. "Trappers have a bad public image,
though it is a grossly distorted one," says Claude Oleyar, a
veteran trapper from Colorado Springs participating in the
roundtable. "If trappers win everything they want, lock, stock and
barrel, then a whole lot of people will vote against us."
Oleyar says the issue boils down to humaneness:
"Will a coyote suffer a little more in one trap or another? Do you
kill him in three minutes, five minutes or three hours? Does he
have one cut, two or a swollen foot? It doesn't really matter,"
says Oleyar, who professes a great admiration for coyotes. "A
trapped animal is a dead animal."
Buchanan, who has built a predator-proof fence around her chicken
coop, says the majority of the public - even in rural portions of
the state - sees the issue as more complex.
know a little old couple who recently came across a fox in a trap -
and it was still alive," she says. "Under the current rules, there
was nothing they could do. It nearly broke their hearts."
* Paul Larmer,