Three summers ago, David Cronenwett stood in front of 13 guests at the Pine Butte Guest Ranch in Choteau holding a beaver pelt in his hands. As the ranch's natural history educator, it was Cronenwett's job to provide background stories to guests before they headed out to explore the Pine Butte Swamp Preserve. He had just finished explaining the early beaver boom in North America, and he was in the middle of describing the beaver's current role in the wetlands, when a guest suddenly interjected: She wanted to know how he had acquired the beaver pelt. When Cronenwett suggested that a local trapper probably donated it, the woman sat back angrily and said, "That dirty bastard."
It wasn't the first time Cronenwett had met with this kind of reaction, but being a trapper himself, he took the comment personally.
"I tried not to come off defensive," Cronenwett says. "I told her I was a trapper. I told her that it was one way to supplement a living, a way to get outside and interact with the landscape, and to be connected to a tradition that's been going on for millennia."
As the week went on, Cronenwett and the guests took hikes across the prairie and into the mountains. The time spent together, he says, helped diffuse the tension.
"You're with these folks for many hours of the day and it's a good way to get to know people," Cronenwett says. "Once you get to know people, it's much easier to have these discussions."
On a larger scale, discussions about trapping don't come quite as easily. Over the last few decades, trapping has become a hot button, emotional issue in western Montana. The passion has escalated even more in the past few years, especially around urban settings like Missoula and in the developing Bitterroot and Flathead valleys. Stories in the news about domestic dogs maimed or killed in traps have driven a large portion of the uproar. But other issues about trapping rise to the surface with equal fury, such as the ethics of trapping and its overall safety in an ever-populating West. In the early 1980s, the late trapper and renowned conservationist Bud Moore all but predicated the debate when he told Fur, Fish and Game magazine that, while he personally felt trapping could still play a role in the modern landscape, it would ultimately be society at large that would determine whether it's good or not, and whether it would continue.
As society at large carries out that debate, trappers find themselves increasingly on the defensive. Even a starting point to the conversation—an understanding of what trapping is—can be hard to pin down. For instance, the Bitterroot-based anti-trapping group Footloose Montana states on its website: "Trapping is a poorly understood activity in Montana—and trapping organizations would like to keep it that way." Meanwhile, the National Trappers Association's ethics handbook states: "Trappers who act responsibly and ethically don't have anything to hide. However, they need to appreciate the fact that most people know little or nothing about trapping."
Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), which supports trapping for management and regulates it for recreational use, agrees that a basic ignorance about trapping remains a huge obstacle.
"Groups that oppose regulated trapping have painted it as unduly cruel, dangerous and a threat to wildlife populations," says FWP wildlife biologist Jay Kolbe. "The vast majority of the general public has, at best, only a passing knowledge of it, and these messages may be all they have with which to form an opinion.
"The facts are much different," Kolbe continues. "Today, most trappers use specialized methods and equipment to hold or dispatch animals ethically and which limit the possibility of non-target captures. Many of the traps that caused the recent and highly publicized injuries to dogs were illegally set. Fact is, trappers who follow the law will avoid most conflicts; those that don't will and should be prosecuted like any other game-law violator."
As anti-trapping groups push for change, many trappers realize they need to do a better job of defending their place in society. The task at hand isn't as simple as merely explaining the mechanics of trapping and hoping that will suffice. For those trappers who consider themselves progressive and conscientious, it means addressing the ethics of what they do, and having a much deeper conversation about wildlife and land-use. In short, it's about proving that in a swiftly changing landscape, trappers are still relevant. And it's a point some of them are already working hard to drive home.
Footloose Montana has established itself as one of the most vocal critics of trapping in the state. In 2009, the organization, which focuses on domestic dogs in traps, formed Montanans for Trap-Free Public Lands and campaigned for Citizens' Initiative 160. The ballot initiative aimed to ban all trapping on public lands with the exception of trapping used for science, propagation, health and safety. Though the initiative didn't make it on the ballot, the campaign succeeded in stirring up strong emotions on all sides of the issue.
On its website, Footloose Montana offers at least 10 examples of stories relating to dogs getting killed or hurt in traps. The organization also cites examples of birds and other non-target animals that have met their demise due to either illegally set traps or, in some cases, legal traps set near high-use recreation areas.
A few months ago, not far off the Fred Burr Trail in the Bitterroot, a couple of cross-country skiers discovered a dead Clark's Nutcracker in an elevated leg hold trap. The skiers notified FWP and gave Footloose Montana the photos with a request to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from the offending trapper. Other stories surfaced over the past winter including one from a family in Wolf Creek whose Labrador showed up with a trap on his paw eight days after he went missing. For Footloose supporters and many dog owners, trapping on public lands is unnecessarily risky.
"I've been kept hostage by the trapping season because I don't want to expose my dogs to the danger," says Anja Heister, Footloose's executive director. "Now I go to the places around Missoula and I'm not using the public lands that I pay taxes for."