Montana trappers, having mistakenly snagged protected species like bald eagles or wolves, or even unprotected species like domestic dogs, might wonder what Montana’s lax regulations require them to do next. The answer? Shoot, shovel and shut up—in essence, get rid of the evidence. A day after Christmas, one Bitterroot couple came face to face with that regulatory void and, at the center of it, their dead dog.
Peg Klouda and Brian Cherry have lived in Victor, up against the Bitterroot mountains, for two decades. From his kitchen table near a wide window, Brian Cherry, a lean man with blue eyes and gray hair, tells the story of losing his dog. Most days of the week, he says, he and Klouda walk their dogs in the woods. They have four, all rescues or pound-puppies. The dogs walk off-leash and aside from the Great Pyrenees, the pups stick close, he says. The Wednesday before Christmas, Cherry headed out for a walk—“the same walk we’ve been doing for 20 years.” This time, Tio, the 3-year-old Great Pyrenees, didn’t come home. Just once, Cherry’s lip trembled when he talked about it.
Usually, when the Pyrenees wandered off during a walk, he returned home within an hour, Cherry says. When Tio failed to return, Klouda called Cherry. “She was concerned enough that I left work,” he says. He searched until 10 that evening. The next morning, he hiked for a few hours before going to work but saw no sign of their giant white pet.
Christmas came and went. “I probably logged 80 miles that weekend looking for my dog up in the hills,” Cherry says. On Sunday, he found Tio.
“I came upon the trap line and followed it to every trap that I saw,” says Cherry. When he saw white hair and blood marking a dirt trail, he followed it, knowing what he would find. At the bottom of a ravine was Tio, victim of the shoot-and-shovel routine. “He was shot twice, straight down through the top of the head,” says Cherry.
That night, the day after Christmas, Cherry and Klouda buried the dog and unearthed a desire to strengthen Montana’s trapping regulations.
In Montana, trapping is a minimally regulated sport. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks issues 3,500 trapping licenses annually. Many species, designated predators, can be trapped without a license. In both 2002 and 2003, FWP officers wrote roughly 30 trapping citations each year. (Shooting a trapped domestic dog will not garner a trapper a citation from FWP.) By comparison, in both 2002 and 2003, FWP officers issued nearly 1,000 hunting violations.
The owner of the traps, who admits to killing Tio, wants to be identified only by his first name, Fred. “I had to shoot it,” he says. “I couldn’t get it out of the trap. It wanted to bite me.” He was intending to trap coyotes, for which no license is required. He was using legal traps with the permission of the landowner, he says. Additionally, according to Fred, the dog had been chasing livestock. (The landowner, contacted by the Independent, did not comment on that allegation.) “The law is on my side,” Fred says.
Criminally speaking, Fred is correct:
Animal cruelty laws aren’t applicable if the dog was, as Fred says, chasing cattle, explains Ravalli County Undersheriff Kevin McConnell. (Legally, he says, Cherry could have been—but wasn’t—cited for having a dog “running at large.”)
FWP won’t cite Fred for shooting Tio, either.
“There is no trapping violation,” explains Doug Johnson, Bitterroot game warden for FWP, who was informed of the incident by both Cherry and Fred. “There is no criminal citation that I can issue.”
Once or twice a year, Johnson receives reports of domestic animals caught in traps. This is the first time he has had a call about a trapper having shot a dog dead. Many trappers, Johnson says, have their own dogs and take care to avoid snaring non-target species, like domestic dogs, by removing or deactivating traps during weekends, when they know that foot—and pet—traffic is higher.
By the looks of it, pet-owning Montanans are currently reliant on the ethics and good graces of trappers. Johnson says he has no way to estimate the number of trappers working in the area, the number of traplines set or their locations. And he doesn’t believe that implementing regulations would go far in helping him keep a closer eye on trappers.
“It comes down to a manpower issue,” says Johnson, who’s responsible for the northern part of Ravalli County, an area of roughly 889 square miles.
While shooting Tio doesn’t appear to have been a criminal offense, the action isn’t condoned by the Montana Trappers Association (MTA).
“I don’t know that that’s ever justified,” says Paul Schmidt, president of the 30-year-old, 563-member organization. Schmidt himself traps, and accidental trappings are inevitable, he says. “I’ve released a lot of dogs,” he says.
Schmidt carries a long pole with a loop at one end with which to do so. It’s called a catch-pole, and it allows a trapper to restrain and then free an “incidental catch.”
Trappers’ practices and ethics vary. But attempts to regulate trappers’ actions are often seen as a direct assault on Montana’s deeply rooted agricultural community. Ranchers, having lost sheep or cattle to coyotes—or to domestic dogs “running at large”—can hardly be expected to welcome regulations that weaken their ability to protect their livelihood. (Fred says he is often asked to trap coyotes by ranchers.)
“I don’t think it’s realistic to ban trapping forever,” Cherry says. “I don’t think that’s any place we can go.”
Instead, he wants strengthened regulations: public notification of the location of trap lines; a requirement that trappers check on traps every 12 hours instead of every 48; required trapper education courses; and accountability on the part of the trapper for “accidental catches.”
Rep. Gail Gutsche, D-Missoula, has recently received a handful of inquiries, including Cherry’s, about revising trapping laws. She meets with FWP agency officials this week about the possibility of bolstering rules that regulate trapper/domestic animal interactions.
In the meantime, the Victor couple’s only recourse is to pursue the matter in civil court. Cherry and Klouda are trying to decide whether to sue for destruction of property—whatever Tio might have been worth on the open market.