Every 20 years in Montana, more than a million bobcats, otters, wolverines, fishers, pine martens, otters, fox and other furry critters are exterminated from Montana's forests and streams.
Collateral damage includes the endangered Canada lynx, eagles and bears—not to mention all the dogs and cats unwittingly snared in traps. But a ballot initiative banning trapping on all public lands in Montana would change all that, if it passes in 2010. So it's not surprising that the state's trappers are working hard to defeat the initiative.
They argue that trappers are a lot like hunters and have a right to choose their method of killing wild animals. At least one hunting group, Montana Public Wildlife, Lands & Water, disagrees. Director Tim Border says many hunters consider trapping inconsistent with wildlife conservation.
Many independent wildlife biologists agree that trapping threatens the survival of species such as wolverines, fishers, martens, otters and some species of fox. In fact, less than a century ago in Montana, trappers wiped out fishers, those scrappy hunters that are the primary predators of porcupines. Fishers have since been re-introduced, and although trapping was prohibited long enough for the population to recover, the animal's survival remains uncertain. The fisher is now being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
There's also the question of whether trapping can be considered ethical under the rubrics of "fair chase." The Boone and Crockett Club defines fair chase as the ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild animal in a manner that doesn't give the hunter an improper advantage.
Anyone who has ever caught a mouse with a baited trap knows that there is no "chase" involved in trapping. Baiting clearly gives the trapper an unfair advantage. And no quick, humane kill is involved, since the trapper often returns to a trap days later to club the animal to death.
Finally, trapping violates the first rule of hunting: "Know your target." How would we feel about a hunter who inadvertently shot and killed someone's pet dog or even an endangered Canada lynx while hunting an elk?
Perhaps because it's so difficult to defend the act of trapping, trappers often resort to claiming that what they do is a grand part of Montana's heritage. Trapping, they say, should be tolerated on grounds of tradition. As the Montana Trappers Association puts it, "Hunting and trapping were the primary ways that humans provided food, clothing and shelter for themselves, their families and groups or tribes. This heritage and the tradition of hunting, as old as humans themselves, is still strong today."
But the real motivation for trapping today has nothing to do with food, clothing or shelter. Instead, it has everything to do with the pelt prices set by the fur industry. What human beings did when we scrambled to live on the land is no longer relevant to modern wildlife management. Cave dwellers, after all, are not remembered as great humanitarians. And even though it was considered legal "sport" to hunt Aborigines in Australia as recently as the last century, nobody would argue we should tolerate it today, simply because it was part of a historical tradition.
As for Montana's heritage, trapping was outlawed here before Montana even achieved statehood. The Montana Territory's 1876 Wildlife Act outlawed killing beavers because of the ecological benefits in the arid West of these "water farmers of the plains." It also prohibited killing animals "for the purpose of procuring the hide only" without making use of the carcass for food. The Helena Independent praised this measure, passed 133 years ago, because it would "insure the essential quality of protecting our rapidly diminishing resources."
In a similar vein, the November 1872 issue of American Sportsman magazine tried to define what makes a true sportsman: "It is not the mere killing of numbers, much less in the mere killing at all; it is not in the value of things killed, though it is not sportsmanship, but butchery and wanton cruelty, to kill animals which are valueless as food..."
If anything, our wildlife heritage takes the side of conservation, not trapping, unless we are to return to our survivalist "tradition." As Montana's own world-renowned bear expert (and former trapper) Chuck Jonkel bluntly states, "The days of trapping are over. It's now time to preserve Montana's wildlife."
Many people oppose trapping on ethical grounds, but everyone should oppose it from a conservation standpoint. After all, when was the last time you saw that tough little critter called a fisher?
Tom Woodbury is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the Montana director for the Western Watersheds Project and works in Missoula.