Trapping initiative may snare Colorado ranchers

  • Bobcat in a leghold trap - The Fu


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."

For the 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 failed.

That's not much of a concession, according to Mike Harper, a sheep rancher from Ault, north of Greeley on Colorado's Front Range.

"We've got 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 entirely.

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 skunks.

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 old.

"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 agencies

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 allowed.

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 months.

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 Agriculture.

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 (HCN, 10/2/95).

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 sight.

"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.

The 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.

For the 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.

Though 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 Amendment 10.

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 Smith.

"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 ways

If Kourlis wanted to elude the environmentalists, he didn't entirely succeed.

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' roundtable.

But in early July, after several work sessions, all but the Audubon Society dropped out, claiming Kourlis had short-shrifted scientific information and ignored environmentalists' concerns.

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 trappers.

"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 unattended.

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 winning.

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."

Carol 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.

"I 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, HCN associate editor

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