When wolf-trapping goes viral

  • Erin Zwiener


Something new and provocative came through my Facebook feed last month. The anti-trapping organization, Footloose Montana, posted photos of three trappers, all posing with wolves that they'd killed in Idaho.

It wasn't the pictures of dead animals that startled me; to motivate its membership, Footloose Montana regularly posts grotesque images of suffering animals caught in traps and dying. What shocked me this time was that the group had posted photos in which the trappers' faces were recognizable.

The photos sparked the usual inflamed comments, which then kicked off an emotional debate about trapping. Among the many commenters there were people who represented both sides, but for the most part the feed seemed like a witch hunt against the three trappers, though none of them had done anything illegal. In Idaho, it is legal to trap wolves.

"I would beat (the trapper) down till his tongue is hanging out his mouth then I would take a picture holding his head and smile," said one commenter to Footloose Montana.  One photo had shown one of the proud trappers grinning, while behind him a still-living trapped wolf stood on blood-spattered snow. When he posted this photo to trapperman.com, the trapper claimed that someone else had actually shot the wolf before he arrived on the scene. This photo outraged many viewers, and it also gave me pause. I'm used to seeing smiling trophy shots, but I can't ever recall seeing one in which a hunter was posed with a live wolf in pain -- a wolf the hunter in question had not even pursued.

This photo went viral, and Footloose Montana reported receiving a death threat via email. A death threat ought to be a good indication that it's time to tone down the rhetoric. But Footloose Montana responded by reposting the story multiple times, and on April 1, the group posted the full name, work phone number and work email of the trapper posed with the wounded wolf. The group even provided contact information for his supervisors and noted that he was a Forest Service employee. Now, more than one organization is calling for him to be fired, as well as a full investigation into the wolf's death.

Is setting up another individual for harassment really an appropriate response to a death threat? For days, Facebook commenters called this man a "murderer," "the face of Evil," a "knuckledragger," "psychopath" and worse. Footloose Montana asked commenters to refrain from threatening the trapper on its Facebook page, but previous vicious comments remained up until April 4, though some posts that had supported trapping were taken down.

There were a few trends to the nastier comments, such as people saying that they wished the trapper or his children would get caught in a trap, or hoping that the wolves would get revenge and trap a hunter. And no online controversy is complete without the obligatory comparisons to Hitler, serial killers and wife-beaters. A few of the comments were blatantly threatening. "I think I see a bullseye on that guy's forehead...!" On and on, the rage progressed, feeding on itself.

How is permitting the private harassment of law-abiding individuals like this trapper any different than Rush Limbaugh picking on a female law student who dares to confront authority, or anti-abortion picketers slinging vile names at women entering the offices of Planned Parenthood and even threatening the lives of abortion doctors? In many ways, trapping raises issues similar to the controversy over reproductive rights.

One side staunchly believes that the other side's currently legal activity is immoral. The rhetoric is even similar. I visited a pro-life Facebook page and saw the same Hitler comparisons, vile epithets and "at least they'll rot in hell" conclusions tossed around. It's interesting to see animal-rights activists, many of whom I assume lean to the left politically, using the same tactics as fringe radical conservatives.

I am a strong supporter of wolf management, but I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of trapping. I try to see both sides of the issue. At this point, I assume that Footloose Montana will eventually win its battle to ban all trapping on public lands. But I don't believe that exposing and attacking private individuals is an appropriate way to effect change, however sincerely that change is desired. And public opinion should not dictate the private morality of federal employees. Let's not target a few men for their legal activities. Activists can fight this out at the voting booth and in the Legislature and leave law-abiding citizens alone.

Erin Zwiener is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer living in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Derek  Andrews
Derek Andrews
Apr 25, 2012 05:43 AM
I think Erin makes rather a lot of presumptions in her article. First up is why does Footloose Montana post pictures. Erin claims it is to motivate their readers; perhaps it is also to educate the public at large, which in this case it seems to have achieved quite admirably, or just to pass on news to members who want to keep abreast of the issue.

As for publishing photos with recognizable faces, why not? If trappers publish their trophy pictures in a public forum, it seems reasonable to assume that they want the world to see how proud they are of their achievements.

With regard to the official response to the incident, all I can say is shame on Idaho for seeing this as a black and white case of legality. How anyone can support this fellow for posing for a photo with a smile on his face while there is an animal suffering in the background, is beyond my comprehension. Commonsense and compassion should outweigh legality. After all, the law is a sluggish and fluid thing, which often hasn't caught up with society at large.

As for the way to get things changed, all I can say is that politicians will generally pay no heed to issues like this until either their own attitudes change, or they feel the need to appease a significant section of the electorate in order to stay in power. Maybe this incident will push them a little way along this road, though I somehow doubt it will be the end of the problem. Trapping has deep roots in North America, and most Natural Resource departments seem to actively encourage the activity, and are staffed with pro-trappers. I don't think we will see much difference in the fate of fur bearing animals until this culture is changed.

Unfortunately, these things take time to happen. In the meantime if this incident serves only to get the trapping community to use peer pressure to encourage its members to show more compassion for our fellow creatures on earth, then l would consider that a good step in the right direction.

As for the language and comments that this all prompted, this is par for the course in a web based forum. Much of it I would guess comes from people who haven't had much exposure to this issue or anything similar, and they just don't know how to react in an effective manner. What it does expose though is a deep disgust for what is happening here, albeit it for a variety of reasons. For many people this runs deep and causes great hurt and torment, just to know that this kind of cruelty is happening, and even that they belong to the same species as those that behave in this manner.

This was perhaps best summed up by a post in another facebook group:

"I am wondering if there have been ... any study on the the traumatic stress that some of us go through seeing abuse to any animal. Studying this could explain how a perfectly normal caring person snaps and does things completely out of character. ... I have been incapacitated and consumed by the last few post regarding the beautiful animal murdered in Nfld, the sled dog murders in BC and finally and quite honestly xxxx's reactions to what has sent him off the deep end. I admire xxxx and I respect his knowledge, skills and ability to live in harmony with nature but he lost it and I do the same day in and day out and I want to know why and what can be done to ease the pain with out supporting pharmaceutical companies. I go to sleep angry now and wake up the same and I am very worried. I am consumed by this and have been for decades, the sight on an animal caught in these traps"
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Apr 25, 2012 07:05 AM
Destroying the myth
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Apr 25, 2012 08:22 AM
It's worth pointing out that Ms. Zwiener was the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Conservation Coordinator during 2008 to 2010. This is the same RMEF that recently 'donated' $50,000 to USDA Wildlife Services so that more Montana wolves could be trapped and killed. Seems like this would be have a good affiliation to include in the bio at the end of this opinion piece.

Also, it's interesting that at first the trapper in question, Josh Bransford, "claimed that someone else had actually shot the wolf before he arrived on the scene."

Yet, in the 'investigation' into the incident, the Idaho County Sheriff's Department claimed there was no evidence that anyone actually shot the trapped wolf. Yet, where did all that blood in the snow come from?

Anyway, here's a picture of the Idaho County Sheriff's Department posing with the winner of the Sheriff Department's SSS (Shot, Shovel and Shut Up) wolf-killing raffle award. So, I'm not real sure these boys conducting an 'investigation' into the trapping incident – or any potentially illegal activity involving wolves – really would be that complete and honest. Thanks.


Timothy Provow
Timothy Provow
Apr 25, 2012 10:29 AM
Erin, we at Footloose Montana neither use, nor advocate the use, of threats and violence to solve differences. We have publicly stated this many times. The photos you refer to in your article were published online by the Idaho trapper himself. He proudly displayed his face with the trapped and dying wolf for all to see. Footloose simply reposted this information. While his actions were technically legal according to Idaho law, his behavior was morally reprehensible. This individual is a federal employee whose salary is paid with our tax dollars. As a public official, he answers to the public. He committed an egregious act and proudly published photos and text regarding his actions on the broadest based public forum known to man. Yet you seem to suggest that our organization is to blame for the public backlash he experienced? You suggest we somehow permitted “the public harassment of a law abiding individual”, yet your only comment on the threat to kill Footloose Montana members’ children is that we should ‘tone down the rhetoric”. Comments made on our Facebook page are not the opinion of our organization. We can only edit or omit inappropriate comments after the fact. Attempts to associate us with inflammatory issues such as abortion and Adolf Hitler should be beneath you, quite frankly. We are neither an animal rights group nor a left leaning political organization. An animal rights group believes that animals have inherent rights. We don’t believe this nor have we ever put forth this theory. Your assumption that we have a broad liberal agenda is, again, incorrect. With respect, I would suggest that, before you write an editorial about an organization, you take the time to research its position and perhaps talk to its members. I am always happy to talk to the media.

Tim Provow
President, Footloose Montana
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Apr 25, 2012 10:54 AM
One other thing, if Ms. Zwiener is going to highlight in her article comments made on Footloose MT's Facebook page against trapping and trappers, one has to wonder why in the world she wouldn't have also highlighted and re-printed the death threat Footloose Montana received? After all, that death threat has been reported in numerous newspaper articles about the incident. Perhaps the death threat that Footloose MT received didn't fit into Ms. Zwiener's attempt to blame the victims in this case.

Here is the actual death threat and some additional information from the Great Falls tribune:

"[The executive director of Footloose Montana] opened Footloose Montana's email inbox on Monday [March 26] and found what she believed to be a death threat directed at family members of the organization:

"I would like to donate (sic) a gun to your childs (sic) head to make sure you can watch it die slowly so I can have my picture taken with it's (sic) bleeding dying screaming for mercy body. YOU WILL BE THE TARGET NEXT BITCHES!" the message read.

... she reported the threatening email to local and federal law enforcement officials. Missoula Police Sgt. Travis Welch confirmed the department received the report of the malicious email and that it was assigned to an investigator, but he declined to comment further.

Source: http://www.greatfallstribun[…]hreats-Missoula-based-group
Gerald Black
Gerald Black
Apr 25, 2012 11:02 AM
"Ms Zwiener was RMEF Conservation Coordinator" ...Well, that explains a lot. Here's information on what RMEF now stands for....a far cry from the respected organization they once were.........http://missoulian.com/news/[…]11e1-80f5-001a4bcf887a.html
gary turner
gary turner
Apr 25, 2012 01:43 PM
     SO WHAT if trapping is "LEGAL", that does not make it ok. In ancient Rome it was legal to have people fight to the death for entertainment. It was also legal there to have sex with little boys. In Nazi Germany it was legal to round up people and send them to the gas chamber. In America, slavery was legal at one time. It is GOOD that the trappers faces get published. That is how to start getting something done and have stricter regulations on trapping. Trapping is sadistic, it is not a "sport".
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Apr 25, 2012 04:00 PM
It seems like just yesterday when such vitriol and threats were typically directed from the right (ranchers and God-fearin folks) toward the left (hippies, enviros, nature lovers). I always sat on the fence: I hated the trappers and urban hunters but I loved the family traditions. If these 'trappers' put their faces on Facebook, like idiots, they deserve whats coming. The demographics of the West have changed for ever, and not a moment too soon. I was always disgusted by the coyote killers, not just because I love and respect the animal, but also because I understand its proper role in the landscape. It is doubly shocking to me, a native of the West, that these characters also have cushy government jobs in the USFS. They deserve to be outed, and ousted! Its time for the good old boys to frickin GROW UP, get a clue about who you are and where you are! We are very late in the day to keep pretending we're living on the Ponderosa Ranch!
Rusty Neff
Rusty Neff
Apr 25, 2012 05:39 PM
Wow...so many people completely missed the point of this article. It wasn't about the morality or immorality of trapping. It was about the vitriol that is heaped on people who don;t agree with you. The author made a great example comparing the tone of Facebook postings and responses to those in the anti-abortion movement. Both are absolutely convinced they have the moral high ground. And even from the omments already made here, most don't are about legality, but only about showing their rage. There is simply no room for death threats.

I am not a fan of trapping, but I do understand the heritage of it. We need to be able to talk about issues instead of raging about them. I get the point that people are passionate about this and many other issues, but we do have to live together in this world, and there's a bit too much hate already.
Tricia M. Cook
Tricia M. Cook
Apr 26, 2012 11:59 AM
I am very disappointed by this OP-ED piece in HCN:
I wish that Erin Zwiener could understand that while trappers such as Josh Bransford did not purportedly break any Idaho Laws (which is both shocking and disturbing), it certainly does not make their cruel and inhumane actions just and right.
It is also notable that Zwiener's ties to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation were not mentioned. I feel that this was an intentional and rhetorical omission.
Justin Ziegler
Justin Ziegler
May 04, 2012 11:07 AM
To Tim Provow,

You stated that the trapper " is a federal employee whose salary is paid with our tax dollars. As a public official, he answers to the public."
This simply isn't true. As far as I know, he did not trap during work. Why should the activities of public employees be subject to scrutiny afterhours? If Joe Blow on a USFS trails crew decides to look at pornography in his home at night, does he represent the federal government? No. It is fair to criticize him as a person but not as a public servant. What if the trapper worked for a ranch or logging outfit? Is he responsible to his employer if he traps on his free time? This is an absurd argument. As an employeee of severla public agencies, I'm sure I've done my fair share of things that could be seen as morally reprehensible. I can admit that. But do not assume that as a public employee during the week that I have to abide to higher moral standards.

I find this article raises a great point. Suppose someone did release the supposed address of Mark Zimmerman (oh, wait they did). Have you heard of the discomfort that the residents of that address endured? Releasing the trapper's information given the hate-filled comments already posted against him on Footloose's site, this shows CLEAR irresponsibility. You could be sure that if the trapper was verbally or physically attacked, Footloose, obligated to administer the activities on their page, would be found responsible in court.
I applaud Erin for bringing attention to, not the subject of trapping, but to organizations on either side of the aisle condoning an dproviding a venue for this kind of behavior.
Timothy Provow
Timothy Provow
May 05, 2012 12:30 PM
Justin, so according to your logic, there is nothing wrong with the government employee who works for Child Protective Services but goes home and mistreats his children? If a person’s personal habits, beliefs, behaviors, etc. have an impact or bearing upon the type of work that person does, it should be of concern to the employer. J.B. works for the USFS, correct? The top line of their homepage says “caring for the land and serving people”. You look at J.B’s treatment of wildlife and say that his employer, the tax paying public, has no right to object? I wonder if he has broken any wildlife laws in the past? An inquisitive individual might be able to search Idaho public records and find a summary of multiple court proceedings verifying this. What do you think? As for your assertion that we are somehow legally liable for talking about information that is available to the public, I would suggest that you find a better source for legal advice.
Justin Ziegler
Justin Ziegler
May 05, 2012 04:41 PM
Tim, That's a good point. But how does being a public employee make this different than being a private employee? Shouldn't you disagree with a private biologist taking photos smiling with a trapped wolf? I'm not following your logic why a public employee should be under greater scrutiny than a private employee.
You're right. I'm going to start tracking down Planned Parenthood patients via legal means and disperse them to an audience suggesting violent action. That would be responsible.
Timothy Provow
Timothy Provow
May 05, 2012 05:31 PM
Justin - yes, I would disagree with anyone doing what J.B did. I don’t have any real input into what a private employee does, unless I happen to be his boss. Public employees answer to the public; its part of the job. I can’t follow the logic behind your Planned Parenthood example. First, peoples’ health care information is protected by federal law (HIPPA) and is not public information. Second, why would you want to dispense such information? Third, we have never, as you seem to suggest, advocated violence. We have, in fact, released multiple statements urging people on both sides of this issue to refrain from violence.