Last January, in the snowbound mountains that crease northern Idaho’s Boundary County, an unnamed trapper found what he thought was a live bobcat in his baited wire cage. He shot the creature on sight, hoping for a pelt that would fetch up to $2,000 on the fur market. But when he lifted the carcass from the snow and saw its enormous paws, he realized he’d made a terrible mistake: he’d just shot a threatened Canada lynx.
To his credit, the man reported his error to the state’s Fish and Game Department and eventually paid around $400 in fines and court costs. While the trapper’s restitution didn’t save that particular feline, here’s some solace for lynx-lovers: Conservation groups now plan to sue the state of Idaho for permitting trapping that leads to lynx bycatch.
Incidental capture isn’t an everyday occurrence. Over the last two years, there have been just three such incidents, and in the other two cases the lynx were released unharmed. Still, with habitat fragmentation and climate change threatening the cat’s environs, every lost lynx is a blow. “The population in Idaho is down to as few as 100 individuals,” says Ken Cole, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), one of the groups behind the litigation. “When you’ve got so few animals, each and every one matters.”
In their declaration of intent to sue, WWP and its co-litigants, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Clearwater, argue that by allowing trapping that harms lynx, even accidentally, the state is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. To avoid liability, Idaho could apply to the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an Incidental Take Permit, which would require the state to develop a conservation plan to reduce mistaken trapping. Such a plan, say environmental groups, should include restrictions on lethal traps, increased monitoring, and a mandate to check traps daily in lynx habitat to prevent the rare cats from languishing for days.
Those rigorous measures are even more important given the resurgence of trapping, an industry that once appeared as dead as the beaver-hat craze. Fifteen years ago, High Country News ran a story that prophesied the demise of commercial and recreational trapping at the hands of animal-rights groups. Today, though, it’s clear that reports of the practice’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Spiking fur demand has pelt prices at a 30-year high, providing $2.7 million in income for Montana’s trappers in 2012 alone. In Idaho, the ranks of registered trappers have doubled. “The market is strong and improving,” Toby Walrath, president of the Montana Trappers Association, told The Missoulian in December. “It’s a good time to be a trapper right now.”
Where’s all that demand coming from? Asia: the world’s most ravenous consumer of exotic animals and their disembodied parts. “When I started in this business the world’s biggest fur fair was in Frankfurt,” the CEO of one fur company told Canada’s National Post. “Now the biggest is in Hong Kong and the biggest after that is Beijing.”
As more trappers take to the woods, incidental kills have climbed. In Idaho, where a certain livestock-predating canine is considered Public Enemy No. 1, the prevalence of wolf traps means even more unintentional captures. According to documents the state released last year in response to Cole’s records request, 15 fishers, 13 mountain lions, a black bear, and what was undoubtedly a very surprised goose were among the 118 non-target animals killed by trappers during the 2011-2012 season.
That sounds like a lot of critters, and bycatch certainly deserves addressing – especially when threatened species, such as the lynx, are among the casualties. Just to keep things in perspective, though: in 2012, Idaho’s motorists ran down over 5,000 animals.
Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.