Is trapping doomed?

  • Lynx caught in padded leg-hold trap set by commercial trapper - courtesy Fu

  • A GOOD FRIEND: Buddy with a pal

    photo courtesy Liz Kehr
  • Turn of the century trapper in eastern Wyoming

    photo courtesy Lander Pioneer Museum
  • TAKING ON TRAPPERS: Liz Kehr and Kevin Feist

    photo courtesy Liz Kehr
  • HELPLESS: A Conibear trap catches a domestic dog

    Robert Kinney photo
  • PROUD TRAPPER: Tom Krause with skinned pine marten pelts

    photo courtesy Tom Krause

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 trapping.

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 Forest.

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.

"It was like he picked us," remembers Kehr.

Now, 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."

The dog 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.

When 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 or leg.

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 suffocation.

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 three.

"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."

Bob and Laurie Muth were neighbors out for an afternoon ski. Bob helped pry Buddy out of the trap. "But he was gone," says Kehr.

"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.

Trapping requires 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 sale.

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 noose.

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.

Modern 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.

Voters in 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 attitudes, says Krause.

"Trappers are 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 to follow."

Some say those laws aren't good enough.

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 Montana law.

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 Buddy.

"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 people.

"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 Buddy died.

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 hunter.

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 justify.

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 road.

"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, Wyo.

"It was the wrong trap, wrong bait, wrong place," he says.

Pine martens 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.

"You catch marten 50 miles from town," says Krause.

The need for change

Last summer, the Friends of Buddy petitioned the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to change the way trappers operate. They asked for:

* mandatory posting of traplines on public lands;
* banning traps on heavily used public lands;
* mandatory 24-hour trap checks; and
* 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 license.

"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 for.

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.

On 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 others.

"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 area."

"It was 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 foot.

"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.

Ungulates 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 or fox.

From a trapper's point of view, says Krause, many of the recommendations by the Friends of Buddy just aren't practical.

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 says.

"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.

Still, Tom Lucas, a Lander, Wyo., trapper (see sidebar), notes that fairly frequent trap checks are a necessity for the trapper who wants a good pelt.

"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."

Bad apples?

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."

Trapping, 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

But 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 world.

"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 passed.

In 1996, voters in Colorado and Massachusetts approved similar laws that included both public and private lands.

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 Pacelle.

"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 civilized society."

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 Krause.

"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.

In 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.

"It 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.

Wildlife populations 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 coyotes.

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 animals."

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.

"We're not 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 coyotes."

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.

Wildlife 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 continues

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.

Months after Buddy's death, Kehr decided to volunteer her time at the local animal shelter. She started walking dogs there each morning.

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."

A 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."

Tom Reed writes about the West from Lander, Wyoming.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Trapping in the United States (a timeline)

- A Wyoming trapper seeks pelts, and beauty

- In the '90s, trapping still has a role

You can contact ...
* The National Trappers Association, P.O. Box 3667 Bloomington, IL 61702; [email protected];
* The Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. NW. Washington, DC 20037; [email protected];
* The Fund For Animals 200 West 57th Street New York, N. 10019; [email protected];
* Predator Project P.O. Box 6733 Bozeman, MT 59771; [email protected];


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