Forest Service employee Josh Bransford posted a photo online earlier this year that ended up going viral. The image showed Bransford kneeling in front of a bloodied, shot-up gray wolf caught in a leg-hold trap in Idaho. Bransford grinned proudly while his catch was still alive in the background.
The Missoula-based anti-trapping group Footloose Montana discovered Bransford's photo shortly after the Idaho trapper posted it. The group's outrage quickly spread to other environmental organizations and news agencies picked up the story, as well as the image. Bransford made headlines as far away as the United Kingdom for what many agree was a highly unethical decision.
Now, Bransford has become a cautionary tale for trappers in Montana. As about 50 people gather Oct. 7 at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for one of the state's new wolf-trapping certification courses, Bransford's story keeps coming up. Rick Williamson, a veteran trapper and former wolf specialist with Idaho Fish and Game, uses the now infamous photo as a cautionary tale in his biggest lesson of the day: ethics. It's what he and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 director Mike Thompson talk about the most during the six-hour class.
"You need to leave here as professionals," Williamson says. "You need to have respect for these animals."
FWP is pushing the "respect" mantra hard this fall. Now that Montana is following in Idaho's footsteps and opening its first wolf-trapping season on Dec. 15, there will be increased attention and scrutiny over how things go. FWP is already noting a groundswell of interest: the agency had to add more classes after initial demand spiked. By fall's end, FWP will have offered trapping certification to roughly 2,300 people.
Exposing that many potential trappers to these ethics lessons is FWP's best shot at "quality control," Thompson says. The minimum estimate of wolves in Montana has steadily increased from about 250 in 2005 to more than 650 last year. Hunting alone isn't achieving the agency's management objectives, Thompson says, which makes trapping the next logical step. Trapping accounted for 124 of the 379 wolves harvested in Idaho last year. But unethical behavior by a single trapper gives the entire trapping community a bad name, and could derail the state's current management strategy.
Williamson and Thompson continually fall back on the Bransford example. The firestorm his photo sparked left the trapping season in Idaho with a serious black eye. Avoiding similar incidents in Montana is easy, as far as Williamson is concerned. Dispatch the animal quickly. Don't stop to take photos.
"To me, there's no bragging rights or honor in taking a picture of a wolf, or any animal, that's caught in a trap," says Williamson, who has spent the past three years trapping and collaring wolves for monitoring efforts in Idaho. "That's a moment between you and that animal...Respect it by dispatching it quickly."
Williamson doesn't stop there. He hammers every point he can. Check traplines regularly. Don't go showing off a dead wolf in the back of your pickup at the gas station. Don't argue with people who disapprove of trapping. Ask nearby landowners if they mind you setting traplines in the area, and post signs cautioning dog owners where your traps are positioned. John Hughes, a Winnett rancher and regional vice president of the Montana Trappers Association, briefly takes the floor to echo Williamson's concerns.
"The eyes of the world are going to be on you guys," Hughes says. "There are groups out there that support trapping, there are groups out there that don't. All of them are going to be watching us...And this season is going to be a testing ground."
None of the instructors sugarcoat the fact that, ethical or not, wolf trappers in Montana will feel some level of hatred from certain groups. One student at the front of the class calls them "the other side" when asking a question. The goal of the course isn't to win over those opposed to trapping, Williamson says. It's to avoid the negative encounters that frame the non-trapping community's view of the sport. Reducing the possibility of catching non-target speciesparticularly dogsis vital, even if those situations can't be avoided entirely. That's why FWP is holding off on approving snare traps until their effectiveness can be better documented, Thompson adds.
For Williamson, the biggest question isn't what impact bad press during Montana's first wolf-trapping season will have on the future of wolf trapping. He's more afraid of how far the public's reaction to one negative story might extend.
"If we goof up on this wolf trapping thing, will it stop at wolf trapping?" he asks the class. "No." Bungle this season, and trapping in general could be in jeopardy.