Feeling the Squeeze 

Inhumane. Outdated. Dog killers. Trappers hear the criticism from all sides, but remain steadfast in defending one of the state's oldest traditions.

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Any kind of wildlife management carries the weight of controversy. While FWP considers trapping to be a tool, Miller knows that others doubt it. Over the last couple years he says he's had to defend trapping more and more. Even Melanie Parker at Northwest Connections challenged him to think deeper about why he does what he does. Specifically, she asked Miller: What if we didn't trap and we let all the predators and prey sort it out?

"If there's one person who can make a statement and force me to think, it's Mel Parker," laughs Miller. "I have to say, I pondered that question, literally, for months. There was not a day that went by that that question didn't go through my head."

For Miller, the answer isn't cut-and-dried. And even between trappers and FWP, there isn't always an agreement on how wildlife should be managed. The most important thing, he says, is that the conversation continues.

"I never used to respect other people in regard to anti-trapping sentiment," says Miller. "Now, I respect their opinion. I really do. I understand where they're coming from, and it's not my mission to convert them to supporters of trapping. My mission is to hear them out and, if they want, to share the knowledge I have so they can think clearly about the issue, too. It works both ways."

Mike Stevenson tracks carnivores from the backyard of his cabin at the base of the Mission Mountains all the way to the top of the peaks. Using a snowmobile, skis and snowshoes, he works his way up designated trails, documenting animal tracks. He'll note small ones like mice and rabbit, but mostly he has his eye out for carnivores like wolverine, lynx, mountain lion and fisher. When he sees those tracks he punches their locations into a GPS device, adding to the long list of data he's collected over 12 years.

Stevenson is a former trapper currently on staff with Northwest Connections. Along with Tom Parker and a few other trackers, he is working to map how carnivores travel on the landscape and how variation in habitat affects them. It's a project that's helped him put into perspective the life and death issues—the suffering—that wildlife deals with on a day-to-day basis, as well as in the broader ecosystem.

Stevenson's interest in wildlife and trapping started when he was growing up in Montana and Alaska where his father worked as a forest ranger. He recalls veteran trappers hanging around the ranger stations. One of those trappers was Bud Moore, whom he met when he was 13 and whose articles Stevenson read in Fur, Fish and Game.

"Those old-time trappers were the ones that really got out there more than anyone else," says Stevenson. "They kind of knew the secrets of the forest. They were our mentors and heroes, and we wanted to know what they knew."

Despite his early romantic ideals, Stevenson doesn't pretend that trapping occurs without suffering. He does believe the perception of traps being cruel has been exaggerated through anti-trapping campaigns, especially since new technology has made kill traps more efficient.

"I do have a lot of experience using conibears with beaver, muskrat and marten and they kill very quickly," he says. "You can tell when an animal's been alive in a trap because they'll pull the wire and there will be tracks and scrapes and claw marks. But 99 times out of 100, when those animals are caught in a conibear, it comes down on the back of the neck and [kills] it."

Leg hold traps are different. They generally cut off the blood supply and numb the leg. A No. 3 offset jaw leg hold for a coyote, for example, catches the front foot and holds it without forcing the jaws to dig in.

"When an animal is caught in a leg hold trap—don't let any trapper fool you—yes, there is pain and that animal is scared," says Stevenson. "But it's not as gruesome as a lot of the anti-trappers try to paint it to be. Animals will fight it, but usually not for long, and then they'll just kind of lay around until you come up."

That animals like mink have reportedly chewed off their leg to get out of a trap doesn't indicate that it's the norm, adds Stevenson.

With leg holds, trappers have to kill the animal themselves. Stevenson says he kills coyotes with a .22 pistol. Smaller animals can be killed with a stick.

click to enlarge “In a way you can’t argue the truth that trapping isn’t what it was a century ago or in the Great Depression,” says Northwest Connection’s Tom Parker. “It was an extremely honorable profession then, and people actually wore furs for the utility and warmth and longevity.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • “In a way you can’t argue the truth that trapping isn’t what it was a century ago or in the Great Depression,” says Northwest Connection’s Tom Parker. “It was an extremely honorable profession then, and people actually wore furs for the utility and warmth and longevity.”

"I know it sounds like clubbing baby seals," says Stevenson, "but it's an effective way to dispatch a small animal. Then you can stop the heart with your foot or hand by stepping on the [chest]."

It's the kind of details left out of fairytales and nursery rhymes, but for Stevenson, the death and pain associated with trapping needs to be understood relative to the rest of the natural world.

"Animals don't just lie down under a tree and go to sleep," says Stevenson. "They usually die of starvation or another animal eats them. There's a lot of pain out there and for us to participate in the reality of the natural world, is part of that circle."

When I-160 hit the Montana Trappers Association's (MTA) radar two years ago, the group met with several organizations in western Montana to rally for support. Most of those organizations were already on the trappers' side, such as cattlemen and outdoor sporting groups. But MTA did meet with Footloose Montana a couple of times, before Footloose drew the proverbial line in the sand.

Jim Anderson, a regional director for MTA, says that while it's his hope to broker another discussion between the groups, the prospect of it going anywhere looks grim.

"Some kind of forum would be nice where we can get together," he says. "It is such an emotional issue for people...whether or not we are adequately or properly doing a good job of managing our wildlife, some people simply are not going to change their mind."

Footloose remains steadfast in its conviction that trapping on public lands for commercial and recreational purposes must be stopped. The group continues to map out trap locations so that those people recreating on public lands can avoid them. It continues to put on workshops for dog owners who want to learn how to release their pets from traps. Most importantly, it will continue to fundraise and build support for its cause in the hopes of gaining enough signatures so that, within the next couple of years, it can finally put trapping up for public vote.

"Trapping is a privilege that can be taken away by society at any time," says Heister. "It's cruel and it keeps the public hostage. It needs to end."

Despite the impasse, many trappers remain committed to a broader discussion of what they do, and how they do it. The issue for them isn't just if trapping should continue, but how to continue it ethically. It's more of a discussion to be had among themselves, as opposed to with organizations like Footloose.

In Cronenwett's sign-off for his post about trapping he made his plea not to the anti-trappers out there, but trappers whose way of life is at stake and whose reputation is on the line.

"The image of the bloodthirsty, cruel trapper plying his trade in the backcountry...must be overcome," he wrote. "Trapping based on ecology, legitimate cultural values and unassailable ethics is the only kind of trapping that will survive in the United States and elsewhere in the future."

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