Trapped Between Two Worlds

Modern sensibilities collide with tradition. 

Is Montana still a place for the “enterprising young men” of Jim Bridger’s day, or are activities like trapping doomed, as author Tom Reed asked almost 20 years ago? Half of the states in America have trapping restrictions or outright bans, and yet Montana stands firm in its trapping legacy, with the Montana Trap-Free Public Lands Initiative, or I-177, failing for the third time at the ballot last year.

I-177 tried to ban trapping on Montana’s public lands, arguing that the use of traps and snares is cruel and dangerous to wildlife, pets, and people, and is an unacceptable use of our public resources. Opponents of the bill say that trapping on public lands is a tradition, and is a necessary means of managing wildlife and controlling predators that threaten both wild ungulates and domestic livestock.

The trapping debate is often sold as a case of clashing cultures, with the Wildlife Society believing that opposition comes from “urban-oriented cultures.” They cite a lack of objective information and the “dichotomy of lifestyles and values” as “barriers” to resolving the controversy. Indeed, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) supported by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, also works hard at dismissing the negative “public perception” of trapping.

Brian Lynn of the Sportsmen’s Alliance recently wrote, “Divisiveness will be the downfall of the outdoors heritage.” Great point, if only he hadn’t titled the article, “Three Completely B.S. Arguments Made by Anti-Hunters.” Former Montana Trappers Association member Dennis Schultz added fuel to the fire with this much-publicized comment: “We trappers do cause pain and suffering to animals—and apologize to no one.”

While more levelheaded trappers maintain that their activities are a viable component of Montana’s economy, bill proponents say that the romance of the past is blinding us to our wild public resources being sold across the globe for pennies, all in the name of fashion. And, in addition to people and pets becoming entangled in thoughtlessly placed traps—three dog mortalities were reported in 2010—non-target wild animals like eagles, lynx, and wolverine are killed or maimed by indiscriminate trapping.

The largely unspoken concern against I-177 is the use of public lands. Last year, I talked with a TrapFree Montana advocate, and despite the unsettling—and let’s face it, horrific—images of animals dead and dying in the jaws of steel traps, I was undecided. Pictures provide just a snapshot of the rich but bloody history and culture of resource use in the West. However, at a time of crisis for public lands, many fear the slippery slope and the erosion of our rights. I felt protective: ban trapping and next it will be hunting or hiking or river access. 

With political pressure for energy, private owners denying access, and anarchistic ranchers and militia claiming public land for their own, banning a traditional use of public land might just be one step too far. Yet, special-interest groups are already at work dousing the flames of the myth of trappers’ rugged individualism and indifference to changing cultural norms. In 2004, Amendment 41 of Montana’s constitution was rewritten to add “harvesting”—read: trapping—to the legal definition of hunting. Senate Bill 236 was another attempt to meddle with the state constitution, which would have made hunting, fishing, and trapping the preferred means to manage wildlife. It failed.

Many trappers consider themselves conservationists first, like Teddy Roosevelt and the outdoorsmen who founded the American preservation movement. The 1900 Lacey Act put teeth into wildlife protection, banning the sale of illegally obtained wildlife products. The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 added the financial backing necessary for conservation efforts, levying taxes on firearms and bow-hunting equipment. Through Pittman-Robertson, $485 million was distributed to states for wildlife management and conservation in 2009. States match these federal dollars from the sale of hunting licenses. Most other recreationists, like hikers, cyclists, and cross-country skiers, do not pay these additional usage fees for wildlife or habitat conservation on public lands.

Unfortunately, the conservation argument for trapping doesn’t hold, as excise taxes are not collected from the sale of trapping equipment, although there are license fees. While trapping-license sales have tripled since 1975, only half a percent of the population traps in Montana; in 2013, their contribution was $167,000, a mere fraction of the license revenue from elk hunting alone. All the while, Brian Lynn insists that “in foreign countries, regulated hunting of threatened species is often the best, sometimes only, means to fund conservation, protection, and enforcement programs.” In Montana, however, trapping-license revenue isn’t enough to pay for adequate conservation or enforcement efforts, and even FWP voices concerns over the non-game wildlife “funding dilemma,” or shortfall.

While conservation measures and regulated hunting have brought many species back from near extinction, multiple factors play into species survival. University of Montana wildlife biologist Scott Mills says that every problem relating to wildlife conservation relates to human population growth, resulting in habitat loss and fragmentation. Indeed, FWP furbearer coordinator Bob Inman agrees that “sprawl from development has resulted in major changes to habitat in Montana; coupled with a changing climate, trapping and hunting are not the only factors influencing species success.” With Montana’s population increasing by 30% since the 1990s, this is a challenge for wildlife management.

It is undeniable that wild animals do cause damage, especially to residential development. Muskrats breach dikes, draining ponds, and irrigation ditches. Beavers flood property. Raccoons, squirrels, and rodents get into buildings. Prairie dogs, badgers, and skunks dig holes and burrows. Critics argue, however, that “wildlife-damage management” differs from wildlife conservation. Animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce say that the need to manage animals results fundamentally from our expansion into their world. Trapping, according to Bekoff and Pierce, is one of the techniques used extensively to exercise mass killing of whole species, simply because we consider them to be pests, or trash species. The distinction between wildlife management and conservation, the researchers suggest, gets “pretty fuzzy.” Plus, killing nuisance animals is cheap and doesn’t elicit the same emotional response as hunting wolves and grizzlies.

So, the question we have to ask is whether trapping damages wild-animal populations. FWP states that regulations are scientifically based, and a bi-annual “public process” is used to determine trapping quotas. Wildlife management notwithstanding, unlike hunting for meat, the main reason for trapping is to sell furs. Indeed, Montana’s furbearer-management program and species-population estimates are curiously tied to pelt prices. Management techniques to determine how a species is doing include a combination of population-monitoring approaches, which can be supplemented by harvest data, usually by “Catch per Unit Effort (CPUE).” Despite researchers’ caution against the use of harvest numbers “as a proxy for count data” to study long-term population patterns, many states, including Montana, use CPUE almost exclusively, most likely because of a lack of funding for other programs—the non-game “funding dilemma.”

Other than the lack of objective repeatable scientific data, the flaw with the use of harvest counts alone is that, except for a few species, harvest reporting is voluntary. We simply don’t know how well many of these trapped animal species are doing. In the 2013-14 Furbearer Program Report, FWP speculates that based on harvest reports, furbearer species are declining. Beaver, skunk, red fox, raccoon, and bobcat populations have been decreasing since the 1990s. More recently, muskrat and marten have been declining. Otter, mink, badger, and fisher remain stable, but with small populations, and low bag limits. Beaver and otter catch reduced by two-thirds in the past 15 years; the number of coyotes and martens trapped doubled. While the number of active trappers almost doubled since 1998, the number of animals trapped only increased by 24%.

According to Bob Inman, “research is taking place, including the international five-year swift-fox census program, and the ongoing landscape-scale wolverine projects.” But what about those less sexy species, like muskrats? “Most data on these species comes from harvest data and field reports,” Inman concedes. Whatever we think about trapping, it seems scary to think that harvest data is our only barometer of species success.

Based on North American Fur Auction (NAFA) rates, FWP estimates that animal pelts from the 2013 trapping season sold for $2.2 million. While this doesn’t include wolf pelts, it’s barely a whisker of the more than $1.4 billion spent on wildlife-related activities in Montana in 2011—$400 million on wildlife-watching alone. Trapping may be part of our legacy, but these days, its economic importance is low.

“The challenge,” Inman continues, “is in developing a funding system for wildlife conservation that reflects the need to monitor and manage things like habitat loss and climate. It would be great if all would contribute to species conservation, but we haven’t achieved that yet. If trapping or hunting were to go away—then wildlife funding would also go away.”

In 2016, Montana wasn’t ready to terminate trapping. The stories of John Colter and Jedediah Smith mastering the wilderness still resonate with most Montanans. At the same time, images of spiked bear traps tend to ruffle the conscience. Although padded traps (called “rubber-jawed”) exist, they’re not the norm, and basic trap design has changed little since the early 1800s. Is it time to change to something more humane? Is it time to re-evaluate the necessity of trapping at all? Regardless of the answers, branding the trapping debate as a “culture clash” merely scratches the surface. Like subdivision development in prime wildlife habitat, the issue requires an honest look at not only ourselves and our own complicity, but at what our wild public resources really mean to us, and what we must do to keep them.

Montana Trapping: By the Numbers
68,000: traps set in 2013
47,259: estimated catch
>33%: Muskrat
25%: Coyote
12%: Beaver
$393: Bobcat pelt value
$3-4: Weasel and skunk pelt value