Late last month, the Montana Wool Growers Association composed a letter to Attorney General Tim Fox urging him not to approve a proposed 2014 ballot measure to ban all trapping on public lands. The nine-point letter argued against the proposal on every level, from impacts on state revenue to the fiscal toll on the private sector. Ultimately, the organization emphasized that such a ban would violate Montanans' constitutional right to harvest wild game.
Fox's office is reviewing the legal sufficiency of the proposed initiative, and has opened the issue to public comment. In the meantime, the MWGA and other trapping advocates are busy crafting an opposition strategy that could include polling in advance of the 2014 election. The anti-trapping nonprofit Footloose Montana and its allies are working the other side, preparing to gather the 25,000 signatures statewide that are required to get the measure on the ballot.
MWGA's stance comes as no surprise. The organization opposed a trapping ban the last time it came up in Montana in 2010an initiative that fell roughly 2,000 signatures short. Jim Brown, director of public affairs for the MWGA, says his organization has been unflinching in its main concern: The ability to trap predators, mostly coyotes, that can cause significant financial loss for livestock growers. But the broad nature of last month's letter symbolizes a shift in the trapping debate in the past year. Montana hosted its first official trapping season on wolves last fall. Of the 225 wolves harvested in 2012-2013, 97 were killed by trappers. And state officials, believing wolf numbers to be "well above conservation minimums," recently passed a string of regulatory changes that will make for an even more liberal trapping season this fall.
"There's no doubt about it," Brown says. "The level of attention by the public to trapping has obviously been increased with the allowance of FWP of a wolf trapping season. It's just made the whole issue of trapping more high profile."
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks proposed a host of regulatory changes to the upcoming wolf hunting season earlier this year. Building on the addition of a trapping component last year, the agency is now allowing sportsmen to take as many as five wolves through any combination of hunting and trapping. The new rules also allow hunters to shoot wolves over baited traps. FWP issued the changes "with the intent to reduce the abundance of wolves across Montana," and to increase opportunities for hunters and trappers alike.
Those opposed to trapping were already up in arms about the expansion of the 2012 season. Many pointed to Idaho as an example of how dramatic wolf harvest numbers can be under more liberalized regulations. Of the 379 wolves taken in Idaho in 2011, 124 were killed by trappers. Last season, Idaho's harvest dropped to 319, but trappers still accounted for nearly a third120of those kills.
"These extreme trapping proposals are tailored to meet demands by special interest groups, while misleading the public with false claims that trapping is fair chase," KC York, interim executive director for Footloose Montana, wrote in response to FWP's changes earlier this summer. "There is nothing ethical, nor is there any real wildlife management here. The increase to five wolves to be legally trapped is excessive, ecologically damaging, ethically repugnant and further compromises public safety."
Footloose Montana spokesperson Connie Poten partly credits the high-profile nature of the wolf trapping debate for the increased attention her group's received in the past year. The donations Footloose receives are still small and mostly from in-state supporters, she says. But now they get the odd check from Germany or Brazil. "Our Facebook page likes went from about 500 to almost 6,000 just in the last year and a half," Poten says. "We get calls from reporters from out of state now about trapping."
Like the MWGA, Footloose has had to react quickly to the growing fervor against trapping. When they first tried to get a trapping ban on the ballot in 2010, Footloose was pretty much "a band of us that were in the Flathead, Ravalli County and Missoula County," Poten says. They picked up volunteers as they went, but gathering the signatures elsewhere in the state proved difficult.
"This time around, we actually have people in Billings and Red Lodge and Bozeman and Helena and Great Falls setting up as regional coordinators to get signatures for those cities," she says. "We're way far ahead."
It's not just wolves that have propelled the trapping debate. Last year, several photos of a U.S. Forest Service employee posing in front of a trapped and bloodied wolf in Idaho went viral. The news quickly hit the international stage, and trapping opponents loudly called for the employee, Josh Bransford, to be fired. When more stories of federal agents allegedly torturing trapped animals came out, the entire debate exploded. FWP hadn't even announced its regulatory changes yet. As Poten says, those grisly images of Bransford grinning in front of a wounded wolf "opened people's eyes all over the world."
Brown agrees that support for Footloose and other anti-trapping groups has swelled. He says the MWGA has had to "take a higher profile stand" in opposition to the proposed ballot initiative. The organization developed strong partnerships with other agriculture and sportsmen groups opposing the 2010 push. Now they're using "every arrow in the quiver" to increase their own base of support among the public.
"In previous years, our opposition was primarily based on the fact that the trapping ban would make it extremely difficult for livestock owners in Montana," Brown says. "But we're broadening it out this time to make the public understand it's more than about banning the trapping of wolves. This has real economic consequences for the state treasury and for private industry in Montana."